Thursday, December 19, 2013

FINALLY SAW "PRISONERS"


Poor Melissa Leo. Once again stuck in the Old Bag role.

PETER O'TOOLE: OUR HERO


Benjy Stone: Alan Swann, afraid? The Defender of the Crown? Captain from Tortuga? The Last Knight of the Round Table?
 
Alan Swann: Those are movies, damn you! Look at me! I'm flesh and blood, life-size, no larger! I'm not that silly God-damned hero! I never was!
 
Benjy Stone: To me you were! Whoever you were in those movies, those silly goddamn heroes meant a lot to me! What does it matter if it was an illusion? It worked! So don't tell me this is you life-size. I can't use you life-size. I need Alan Swanns as big as I can get them! And let me tell you something: you couldn't have convinced me the way you did unless somewhere in you had that courage! Nobody's that good an actor! You are that silly goddamn hero!

The above exchange is from 1982's "My Favorite Year", which garnered Peter O' Toole a 1983 Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. In it, Benjy Stone(Mark-Linn Baker), a nebbish comedy writer (inspired by Woody Allen and Mel Brooks) confronts his idol, the dashing, swashbuckling Errol Flynn-type movie star Alan Swann, over the fact that the man he has spent his life admiring is, in fact, a fearful drunk. Swann is afraid to do a live Sid Caeser-inspired type of comedy program, and is retreating to his liquid companion. Swann is also afraid of life in general, of rejection by the daughter he abandoned, and of his stardom, which had dwarfed his very existence.

Like many of his performances, as Swann, O'Toole was able to capture heartbreak, a joie de vivre, and sense of style, while channeling a carnival of emotions (often at the same time) across his beaming, radiant face.

Is it ridiculous, how we trumpet our grief when screen legends, people we only know through what we seen onscreen, pass on? Perhaps. But O'Toole made it feel personal, he felt like a friend.

He was our T.E. Lawrence. He was our mad director in "The Stunt Man". And now that he has gone, he has left a giant hole in our hearts.

One that's larger than life.

Goodnight, you prince of the desert, you lion in winter, rest in peace.



And there will be

Thursday, November 7, 2013

DEREK

"Derek is scruffy and people dismiss him. But he has taken the only shortcut that works: kindness. He is pretty perfect because he possesses the only thing that matters, which is kindness."
           - Ricky Gervais, Channel 4. com interview

That is Ricky Gervais describing his television series Derek, the first series of which originally aired January of this year, before plopping on to Netflix. It received some negative attention when it was revealed the main character of Derek Noakes (played by Gervais) was a mentally-challenged caregiver at a home for the elderly.



Indeed, having versed myself in the satirical humor of Mr. Gervais, the smiling image of Derek and the accompanying phrase "A Comedy Series Presented by Netflix" had me bracing for the worst.

I could not have been more wrong. Derek is one of the most profound and moving pieces of television I have seen, and the finest work Ricky Gervais has ever done.

It is not a comedy in any traditional sense, though it is marketed as such. It is, in fact, a somber meditation on dying in a home in working-class England.

It will not surprise you that there is a lot of crying on this show.

Gervais uses the character of Noakes to embody our childlike gaze when it comes to the big questions, such as "When we love someone, why do they have to die?"

Or "Why can't we treat others with kindness, compassion, and afford them the dignity they deserve?"

One episode features images of the actors who play the rest home residents, from when they were young, beautiful, full of vitality.

It's a stark contrast to the residents' current state, and asks the question:

"We will all waste away one day, but will someone be there with us to hold our hand?"

Working alongside Derek in the home is Kerry Godliman's Hannah, who has been there for 15 years and struggles to find a life outside her job. But for all her personal and professional frustrations, she is a woman who is immensely proud of her work and fiercely protective of Derek.

Godliman hits the right notes. Like the show, her portrayal is honest, touching, but never cloying.

As the home's caretaker Dougie, Gervais stalwart Karl Pilkington plays the mouthpiece of agitation, an oft-grim riposte to a world that tolerates cruelty and bullshit.

And, as Kev, Derek's horndog loser friend who hangs about the home, beer can in hand, doing nothing much, David Earl turns his hilarious obnoxious character into something ultimately poignant. That plays out, in one episode, when Kev is finally forced to admit that the only honest and decent thing he has in his life is his friendship with Derek, without which he would be lost.

It is kindness and compassion that has saved his life.

In an age where cynicism often trumps concern, Derek is a revelation.

Hope you give a chance.

And ignore the marketing.
                               
 

THE RETURN

Dear readers, I have returned from my hiatus, having taken the time to get married to the love of my life, and to also complete the first draft of a screenplay about the life of Gene Roddenberry and the early days of Star Trek called To Boldly Go.

That being said, I write now, as my solemn pledge:

I shall not abandon you for such a long time again.

So, in words of Alan Shepard in The Right Stuff -

"Dear Lord, please don't let me fuck up."


Friday, August 9, 2013

To Boldly Go: Gene Roddenberry


 
"I believe in humanity. We are an incredible species. We're still just a child creature, we're still being nasty to each other. And all children go through those phases. We're growing up, we're moving into adolescence now. When we grow up - man, we're going to be something!"

"I did nothing...except get caught with my britches down!"



"He tasks me. He tasks me and I shall have him! I'll chase him 'round the moons of Nibia and 'round the Antares Maelstrom and 'round perdition's flames before I give him up!"

                        - Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban)

The Needs of the Many Outweigh the Needs of the Few...or the One



"I have been...and always shall be...your friend...Live long...and prosper."

1982's "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" was the first film I saw that dealt explicitly with human mortality. It taught me about courage, self-sacrifice, friendship, and honor.

The screenplay, credited to "Time After Time" director Nicholas Meyer and Jack B. Sowards (most of which was re-written by the former) tells the story of a Captain James T. Kirk, who, having been promoted, feels worn out, useless, dead inside, acutely aware of his mortality.

Ironically, it is through a confrontation with his past (an old enemy, a former lover, a son he never met) and the death of his best friend that he feels a new appreciation for his life and his destiny, being a starship captain.

At the end of the film, Kirk reflects on Spock's death,  and stares out at that Genesis planet, and says, quoting the Dickens novel that his friend gave him for his birthday, " It's a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done before. A far better resting place that I go to than I have ever known."

"Is that a poem?" asks Dr. Carol Marcus, the mother of Kirk's son.

To which Kirk replies, "No. Something Spock was trying to tell me. On my birthday."

And the rest, as they say, is history.
                                                       

Submitted For Your Approval

 
"Every writer is a frustrated actor who recites his lines in the hidden auditorium of his skull."

                                              - Rod Serling
 
 

Serling's Challenge


A column I wrote for the site The Tracking Board, on a person whose work I admire: Rod Serling.
"I think the destiny of all men is not to sit in the rubble of their own making but to reach out for an ultimate perfection which is to be had. At the moment, it is a dream. But as of the moment we clasp hands with our neighbor, we build the first span to bridge the gap between the young and the old. At this hour, it’s a wish. But we have it within our power to make it a reality. If you want to prove that God is not dead, first prove that man is alive."
– Rod Serling, Moorpark College, 1968

He was the showrunner, creator, and executive producer of “The Twilight Zone”. Out of 156 episodes, he wrote 92 scripts himself, over 5 seasons. He was an acclaimed writer of teleplays that addressed the horrors of war, racism, human suffering. He was a humanist, a visionary, an American original. He was a hero of WW2 who made it through the Pacific theater and who was plagued by nightmares for the rest of his life. He was a military boxer whose nose was broken in both his first and last matches. He was also a cynic who saw our society’s potential for pettiness and self-destruction. Who can forget his 1959 script of Lyn Venable’s “Time Enough At Last”? A self-absorbed bank teller (Burgess Meredith, a favorite of Serling’s) refuses to acknowledge his lousy marriage and the problems of the world. Instead, he hides in the bank vault reading books, and lamenting the lack of time to do so. While he is in the vault, one day, the looming Cold War specter of the H-bomb is unleashed and the rest of the world gets nuked. He exits the vault in an apocalyptic wasteland, and is saved from the brink of despair, when he finds the remains of a library. He sits down to read…and his glasses fall from his face, smashing against the craggy earth. Serling is not saying one can spend too much time reading – he is suggesting that one cannot ignore the problems of the world entirely – they might just come and blow up in our face. It is worth noting that it was Serling who came up with iconic ending to “Planet of the Apes”, with Lady Liberty’s husk overwhelming a sandy beach in the middle of nowhere.

Serling’s – at times dark – view of humanity extends to the cruelty we inflict on each other for superficial reasons, like physical appearance. Serling’s script for “The Eye of the Beholder”, where a beautiful woman is an outcast in a society grotesques, makes the suggestion that the real ugliness is our penchant for callousness, cruelty, indifference, or worse. “Worse”, being our capacity for self-destruction and hate.

"All the Dachaus must remain standing. The Dachaus, the Belsens, the Buchenwalds, the Auschwitzes – all of them. They must remain standing because they are a monument to a moment in time when some men decided to turn the Earth into a graveyard. Into it they shoveled all of their reason, their logic, their knowledge, but worst of all their conscience."

The above line is from Serling’s script for “Deaths-Head Revisited”, about a former SS Captain who returns to a concentration camp to reminisce, only to be driven mad by the ghosts of those he murdered. “The Twilight Zone”, while occasionally cruel, could often work for the forces of good. This was certainly true in Serling’s “A Quality of Mercy”, a WW2 episode about a green Captain (Dean Stockwell), who, during the final days of the Pacific Theater, orders his men to make a suicidal raid on a cave full of wounded and sick Japanese soldiers. Through the power of “The Twilight Zone”, the Captain finds himself part of a Japanese platoon, which is ordered to kill wounded American soldiers in a cave. In the end, things revert to normal, and the raid is called off, on account of the A-bomb being dropped. For Serling, a man who saw the Japanese kill many friends in combat, to say, “Hey, those guys on the other side are the same sorry sons of bitches” is a testament to his character not just as a writer, but as a human being.

But, in the end, it is not darkness that lurks at the heart of Serling’s work on “The Twilight Zone”. No, it is a genuine love of humanity, a poignant understanding of the wants that make us human: the desire to be beautiful, the desire to be young again, the desire to be loved, the desire to return to a simpler time.

In Serling’s “Walking Distance”, a traveling ad executive (Gig Young) stops at the small town he was raised in, only to find it exactly as it was. All those who were dead are alive. Scared at first, he finds himself in awe of the things he once loved (soda fountain, carousel). He even runs into his own self as a young boy and even his father, who, after seeing his identification and strange money, comes to believe the exec is who he says he is. Dad advises him to look forward and not back because happiness might be found in the places he has yet to look. There is a gentle sweetness in Serling’s depiction of small town life and the fantasy of returning the memory of an idyllic place called home.

Years before he was chasing Michael Myers, Donald Pleasance was in the Serling-penned episode “The Changing of the Guard”. In it, he portrays a depressed teacher who is forced into retirement and feels like he hasn’t made an impact with his lessons. He returns to the school, planning to kill himself on Christmas Eve. But the ghosts of his former students intervene and tell him how he made them better people. Finding purpose in his life, he reads on a statue’s plith the motto of Antioch College, Rod Serling’s alma mater: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”

In the end, that is Rod Serling’s legacy and his challenge to us as human beings: that unless we challenge ourselves to help make this world a better place (perhaps even by a simple act of kindness), then we have learned nothing from this vast mystery we call life. Serling learned this lesson, as did we, in a place beyond imagination, a place where we can see ourselves at our best and worst…

….a place called “The Twilight Zone”.