Sunday, May 31, 2020

face the face

Eight years ago, a friend of mine made a pitch for me to join Facebook. (I wrote about that HERE.) Instead of creating a hub to connect with all things in my past — most of which I spent the past thirty-plus years trying to avoid — I compromised and created a "fan page" on the ubiquitous social media platform. I used it as an additional outlet for my illustrations and my celebrity death obsession. I make daily celebrity death anniversary posts and regular links to my drawings on various subjects... but mostly deaths.... and the deaths of celebrities. (See a trend here?)

Last week, my Facebook Fan page got a bit wonky, to use a technical term. Suddenly, I was unable to access it at all. I began to make my daily postings on Twitter until I could figure out was the issue was.  I felt like I was feeling around in the dark, as Facebook is set up to be less than intuitive. After a couple of days of poking around, I found that I needed to activate a personal Facebook page in order to continue maintaining my Facebook Fan page. So, I did.... reluctantly. Very reluctantly. Once I activated my personal page, I was able to get to my Fan page again. With a few annoying adjustments, it is almost the same as it was prior to Facebook's unnecessary meddling. In an effort to head off any future, unannounced changes at Facebook, I began to accumulate "friends" on Facebook in case I have to make the full switch to "personal" Facebook. I began with those who currently "like" my Fan page. Then, I branched out to people who are "friends" with Mrs. Pincus. By this time, Facebook's algorithms kicked in. I was getting suggestions by the dozens, most of whom I did not know or those with whom I shared a single friend. I asked my wife: "Who's this?" She'd answer: "Oh, that's someone I knew from camp" or "That's that woman from synagogue." "I rode the bus with him in third grade." or "He's a friend of a guy who's a listener of the radio station our son works for." The more I questioned, the longer the explanations got. 

As I "connected" with more people, I began looking at the various posts to see what I was missing. Turns out, I wasn't missing anything. Facebook is a mess! A whiny, complain-y, self-absorbed, entitled mess, filled with narrow-minded, selfish opinions and an unyielding lack of compassion. Oh, and recipes.

Against my better judgement, I continued down this abyss until I hit an area that I really wanted to avoid — my past.

In the fall of 1980, I enrolled in a four-year art school in Philadelphia. This was over a year after I had graduated from high school and that "what should I do with my life?" portion of my youth seemed to be going unanswered. Eighteen months in the retail business made me realize the retail business was what I didn't want to do. I decided to expand on my childhood talent and pursue a career in the wonderful, magical and rewarding world of art. (After 35 years in the field, I have come to learn it is none of those things.)

The school that I chose offered no academic courses. That was the appeal for me, as I struggled with those subjects in high school. The curriculum was purely art and all aspects thereof. Due to its size (small), they only accepted 80 freshmen per year, most of whom would drop out before the fourth year. My class of 80 was whittled down to 43 graduates. I still cannot figure out how I lasted to the end, but I did. I was often frustrated and intimidated by the talent of my peers. I didn't think I would amount to anything, let alone make a living at being an artist. (Spoiler alert: I did.)

There were two classmates I remember. One was Zack. Zack was an asshole. He was a sullen, angry hulk who smoked like a chimney and belittled every single thing he saw — every person, every piece of artwork, everything. He was dismissive about every teacher, most of his classmates and the entire school as a whole. He wore the same torn flannel shirt everyday — frayed with the sleeves cut off. His hair was out-of-date long and his beard was unruly and in desperate need of a trim... and shampooing. Zack had few friends and didn't really want those.

Then there was Ray. Ray was a talented guy with a pleasant, easy manner. He had illustration skills way beyond his years. He also had an ego to match... maybe even surpassing his talents. I remember Ray standing up during a class and loudly announcing that he — and I quote — "had no competition." He didn't care that he was offending his classmates. He acted as though he was doing everyone a favor by identifying his superior talents and letting everyone know they were free to seek a career in another field. But Ray wasn't an asshole. He was personable and friendly — except when it came to his artwork. Sure, he had a very, very high opinion of himself, but he didn't appear to be mean.

After I graduated from art school — just like high school — I remained in regular touch with none of my classmates. None. (Actually, a few high school and art school classmates were at my wedding, just a few months after art school graduation, but within a year or two, I had completely lost touch with all of them.) Then, in 2009 — a full twenty-five years after I had finished art school — an informal and decidedly unofficial reunion was thrown together at a bar in Philadelphia, one that had been frequented by many a student on a regular basis. I actually found out about it by accident, although I don't remember the specifics. Anyway, I went... with a bit of trepidation. (I wrote about that HERE.) I was surprised, but I had a great time. I reconnected with a bunch of people that I had not seen in a quarter of a century. That was an entire lifetime ago.

In the close-packed crowd, I spotted and unfamiliar figure. A somewhat lean fellow with a shaved head. He extended a hand to shake. I sheepishly admitted that I could not place him. He smiled and revealed himself to be Zack. He was friendly and happy and — more important — he apologized for what an asshole he was in art school. He said he had done a lot of self-assessment and deeply regretted the way he behaved as a younger man. I laughed and we reminisced briefly. Soon, I ran into Ray. Ray was the same personable guy I remembered, although his enormous ego seemed to had deflated over the years. The bragging and chest-thumping I had anticipated didn't manifest. I don't even recall what Ray said he did for a living.

Flash forward to just a few days ago. I was sitting on the sofa, scrolling through my new personal Facebook page. I perused the lists of "suggested friends," dismissing the ones that didn't look familiar. I stumbled across a comment left on a post originally  made by a close art school friend. The post was political in nature and I saw that Ray had commented. Ray's comment expressed an angry, venomous, accusatory, racist right-wing opinion that caught me off-guard. I read it and re-read it until its full, uneducated, uninformed, narrow-minded, blind-follower sentiment was fully comprehended. I stopped myself before I hit the "Friend Request" button that I almost clicked just upon seeing his name. This is this the exact reason that I steered clear of Facebook for all these years. I wasn't interested in hearing, seeing or finding out things that I was perfectly fine never ever knowing. And, it turns out, Facebook is the place to find that stuff out.

However, I found Zack. We're friends now.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

world of a king

I am no fan of Stephen King. 

I have read a bunch of his books, though admittedly, not the really long ones. I read Carrie and The Shining and Gerald's Game and.... oh, I don't really remember all of them. What I do remember is that I was disappointed by almost every one of them. Stephen King is a terrific writer of the middles of stories. They are compelling and inventive. The writing is decidedly descriptive. One can almost picture the events unfolding on a movie screen.... which, I believe, is King's intention. The "meat" of King's tales are truly engrossing. However, he has a hard time wrapping things up and arriving at a satisfying ending — especially after such epic plot lines. After investing quite a bit of time reading King's indulgent, often intricate, novels, I have felt cheated by the so-called "pay-off" of most of them. (The one exception is Thinner, his 1984 book released under the "Richard Bachman" pseudonym.) 

My literary relationship with Stephen King ended when I completed The Regulators, which I read after finishing Desperation, its companion piece meant to be read at the same time. When I turned the final page of The Regulators, I closed the book, dropped it to the floor and sighed. It was then that I decided to never waste my time reading a Stephen King book ever again. That book should have ended at several different points, but it stretched on unnecessarily for countless pages of mystical back-story nonsense. I could wait to be through with it.... and with Stephen King. I decided right then and there, never to entertain another Stephen King-penned volume again. (Don't start recommending this book or that book... because I am not going to read them. I'm just not!)

Funny thing.... I enjoy some movies that are based on Stephen King books. I love The Shawshank Redemption (based on Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption, one of four novellas included in the 1982 collection Different Seasons), although the ending of the movie is way more satisfying as compared to the ambiguous conclusion of the original story. Stand By Me is another of my favorite Stephen King book-based films. (It, too, is based on The Body, a selection from Different Seasons.) Again, there are differences between the book and the movie. And, again, the film is more concise in its message. The majority of Stephen King movies are just as disappoint as their source material. (I won't include The Shining in this comparison, because they, essentially, tell two completely unrelated stories.)

Just this week I was scanning the offerings under the "horror" category on Netflix. After scrolling past countless, blood-splatters posters for obscure slasher films (I love horror movies. I hate slasher movies), I stumbled across a film called Horns starring Daniel Radcliffe. I like Daniel Radcliffe. My wife and I just binge-watched the TBS ensemble anthology comedy series Miracle Workers. The show was hilarious (Season two was better that season one) and Daniel Radcliffe was a delight. The synopsis for Horns looked intriguing, so I watched. It was tedious. It was a non-linear, overly — and unnecessarily — atmospheric mess. Radcliffe and the supporting cast (familiar screen faces like Kathleen Quinlan, Heather Graham, James Remar) were all good. Too good for the script. They all looked as though they were trying their best, but were being dragged down by the heavy-handed premise. At just a hair under two hours, I felt like I had invested an entire day into this disjointed adventure that couldn't decide what exactly it wanted to be.

Horns, I later discovered, was based on a highly-touted novel by one Joe Hill. Joe Hill — it turns out — is the nom de plume of Joseph Hillström King, the eldest son and middle child of Stephen King. And let me tell you... the poison apple doesn't fall far from the tree. I should have known immediately, as the entire set-up of Horns smacked of a Stephen King story. There was the close knit group of misfit friends depicted in flashback sequences. There was the camaraderie that can only be experienced in a small New England town. There were dark secrets of youth that smolder and eventually manifest to weigh heavy on the lives of the now-adult friends. There was an awful lot of slow-motion and unexplained, other-worldly manifestations. And there was plenty of gratuitous gore. It was the kids of It and the kids from The Body and the quirky formulaic townspeople of Derry, Maine all rolled together in Daddy's signature style. Did Joe rummage through the wastepaper basket by his father's desk looking for castoffs to crib for his own career?

Eh... what difference does it make. I was sucked in. But, as The Who once warned — I won't get fooled again.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

celluloid heroes

I have been watching Turner Classic Movies pretty much since its inception in 1994. On April 14 of that year, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) broadcast the 1939 epic Gone with the Wind as a fitting debut into the world of classic cinema. From that point forward, the cable channel has shown thousands of Hollywood's beloved films, as well as numerous examples of forgotten features. Of course, there are films that enjoy regular showings, based on perennial popularity and fan feedback. Stand-bys like Casablanca, Some Like It Hot and Citizen Kane are shown often. Very often. Popular actors are seen in some of their popular and less-than-popular films, offering viewers an interesting glimpse into the high and lows of a particular performer's career.

What is intriguing about TCM is how many young fans are regular watchers. Considering the overwhelming majority of the films they show are from before 1955, you'd think there would be exclusive appeal to those who are more than a few years into collecting Social Security. But that, apparently, is not true. There are an awful lot of fans that are many years my junior. (I am almost 59.) They are passionate about films that were produced when their grandparents were kids. They are enamored by actors who passed away decades before they entered kindergarten. 

As it gained popularity, TCM began to branch out. In 2010, the first annual TCM Film Festival was presented in Hollywood. The four-day event was hosted by Grauman's Chinese Theater and Grauman's Egyptian Theater, where some of the most-beloved of Hollywood's films were screened for attendees as though it was a religious service. The event drew more and more folks with each subsequent year. During each year's festivities, attendees were interviewed. They were usually dressed in some period clothing that reflected their favorite era of cinema. Twenty-somethings sporting styles that predated their parents presented an interesting, if not anachronistic picture. These fans gushed with delight as they spoke about movies — all movies — like they were their children. Not just the famous movies, but many obscure films starring long-forgotten actors. Actually,  it seemed like they loved every movie, as long as TCM deemed it "classic".... or at least "old."

I love movies and I love interesting tidbits about movies, but I wouldn't classify myself as a "film buff." There are a lot of famous movies that I haven't seen and there are a lot of famous movies that I have seen but don't like. And while I'm "true confessing," there are some very beloved actors that I don't care for at all. A majority of TCM devotees treat all movies from the so-called "Golden Age of Hollywood" as indisputably perfect and required viewing for everyone. And everyone must love each and every one of them.

Recently, I watched three movies on TCM. I came to these movies in different ways, including indirect recommendations and "why have I never seen this?" All three star famous actors, but not necessarily their most famous role. The first was The Hatchet Man, a 1932 pre-Hays Code film. The Hatchet Man is a cringe-worthy seventy-five minutes that shows Hollywood at its racist and demeaning best. It stars Edward G. Robinson, fresh from his star-making turn in the gangster tale Little Caesar. The cast also features 19-year-old Loretta Young and a slew of English actors. The problem is that The Hatchet Man is a story about the Chinese community in San Francisco. While there are plenty of Asian extras roaming the streets, all of the principal roles are played by non-Asian actors in exaggerated make-up and costuming, spouting lines peppered with alleged "ancient Chinese philosophies" in preposterous broken English. The film also features the uncredited Toshia Mori (who is Japanese) as Robinson's Chinese secretary. She is the lone Asian in the cast with a speaking part, albeit a small one. Unfortunately, she is the target of a remark that is both racist and misogynistic in the same sentence. The interesting, sometimes brutal, story sadly takes a backseat to the blatant bigotry. Hollywood viewed Asian culture as a mystic novelty, an attitude it was unable to shake until.... well.... never. I found this film difficult to watch. While the acting was good, the story was thin and clunky in its telling.

A few days later, I watched the 1949 classic film noir The Third Man. I had heard great things about this movie and I wondered why it took me so long to see it. The Third Man consistently shows up on many critic's "greatest" lists, topping the British Film Institute's list of the "Greatest British Film of All Time." That is a pretty big deal. The film stars craggy Joseph Cotton as an American writer who arrives in post-war Vienna to meet his friend, the mysterious Harry Lime. While ringing the bell at Lime's apartment, he is informed that his friend is dead. This unfolds in the first five minutes. A jarring set-up that lays the foundation for what promises to be a wild ride. It is not. It is standard cloak and dagger that has been parodied a zillion times. The action is packed with knowing glances, shadowy figures, two-timing allies and abrupt, unexplained and unnatural changes in personalities. Plus there's a surprise that you can see coming a mile away. Director Carol Reed was obviously influenced by German expressionists, as the cinematography copies The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as though it was shot with a piece of carbon paper behind it. The "look" of the film seemed more important than the story. At the film's conclusion, I honestly felt cheated.

Finally, I watched Ace in the Hole, a 1951 gritty Kirk Douglas vehicle that was Billy Wilder's first foray as writer, producer and director. This film was a mess in its initial release. At the last minute, the studio changed the title to The Big Carnival without consulting Wilder. The advertising poster is very misleading in its depiction of Kirk Douglas being trapped and in danger. He is not. That is apparent almost immediately,  so that's not a spoiler. Just after its release, Wilder was sued by a screenwriter for plagiarism. All that.... and it bombed at the box office. The story is a none-too-flattering account of media sensationalism and manipulative greed. Douglas is slimy and arrogant and he chews up every last bit of scenery. Co-star Jan Sterling is a stereotypical Hollywood "dame," a one-dimensional, underdeveloped character just there for the men to bounce lines (and slaps) off of. The rest of the cast are stock characters — the unflinching newspaper publisher, the bright-eyed eager photographer, the dim-witted common people. Six years after this movie, screenwriter Budd Schulberg would pen A Face in the Crowd. It is a much better, much darker, much more subtle presentation of essentially the same concept. I actually fell asleep a few times while watching Ace in the Hole, but I found I really missed nothing. That speaks volumes in the way of film editing.

When I talk to people about movies, I am enthusiastic about the ones I like. But, I will recommended films only if I think a particular person will like a particular movie. I don't say "You'll like this!" just because I like it.. However, some TCM fans and those who fancy themselves "film buffs" seem to like every movie they see... even if they don't really like them. They just think they're supposed to like them. I won't criticize you if you don't like a film that I like. That doesn't mean the movie is bad. It just means that we don't share the same opinion on every movie. With that thought fresh in our minds...

Although I won't make any friends with this admission, I will continue my confession. Two of the films I alluded to earlier — Casablanca and Some Like It Hot — are not my favorites. I have watched them both and I don't like either one. I am not a fan of Marilyn Monroe or any of James Dean's movies either.

Oh and I've never seen any sequel to Rocky or The Godfather. Can we still be friends?

Sunday, May 10, 2020

say goodbye to hollywood

I love the "Golden Age" of Hollywood. I am a big fan of  the Turner Classic Movies cable channel. I am fascinated by the scandals of the movie business circa 1930s through 1950s. I savored each and every salacious, albeit equivocal, page of Hollywood Babylon, Ken Anger's sleazy collection of tales from Tinsel Town's seedy underbelly. And, of course, you know about my unnatural obsession with dead celebrities. So, when Mrs. Pincus and I came across Hollywood, a new limited series that just premiered on Netflix this week, we anxiously dove right in.

First blood.
In 2018, multi-award winning "triple threat" Ryan Murphy, the driving force behind the recent hits Glee and American Horror Story, signed a five-year deal with Netflix, setting a record as the most lucrative development deal in television history. Hollywood is the first entry in fulfilling his contract obligations. I have not seen an episode of Glee, but, based on what little bit I have seen and heard, I was not the target audience. As a longtime fan of the horror genre, I watched the first episode of Season Four of American Horror Story: Freak Show. I found it sprawling, unnecessarily atmospheric and tedious in its storytelling. I don't think I even finished watching the full hour. Oh wait, I did... because I remember angrily snapping off the TV when Jessica Lange began anachronistically singing David Bowie's 1971 hit "Life on Mars" during a scene set in 1952. I relented and gave the series another chance. I watched the sixth season of American Horror Story. This one concerned weird goings-on near the site of the mysterious 16th Century Roanoke Colony. I watched all ten episodes and hated every one.

The following year, the Fox Network touted a new limited series from the mind and pen of Ryan Murphy. This one was based on the storied rivalry between two of Hollywood's most iconic actresses — Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, and appropriately entitled Feud. Being a sucker for this type of thing, my wife and I watched... and we loved it. It was trashy and mindless with over-the-top performances from Susan Sarandon and Ryan Murphy regular Jessica Lange. When it was over, we didn't want to to end. I concluded that Ryan Murphy is the "Stephen King of TV trash." (Where as Stephen King is the "Stephen King of movie trash.") Murphy, like King, writes great "middles" of stories. He just doesn't know how to end them, so the endings seem rushed, usually falling flat on its face and well short of expectations. However, Feud worked. Maybe because this story was already written for him... with an actual ending. Murphy was able to concentrate on the tawdry details to embellish an existing story and not be bothered with how to wrap the whole thing up. It was predetermined by the source material.

We're okay now.
Admittedly, I had some trepidation about investing time in to watching Hollywood. I am not really a fan of the majority of Ryan Murphy's work. But the synopsis of Hollywood was compelling. So, we decided to give the first episode a trial viewing. If we liked it, we'd continue. Well, we liked it and continued. Actually, we plowed through all seven episodes in two consecutive evenings. We really liked it. And, frankly, what was not to like? It was trashy, garish, gaudy and — surprisingly — well acted. The actors — a great blend of veteran talent and up-and-comers — were all thoughtfully cast.  The sets and production were meticulous and stellar. The storytelling was typical intertwined "soap opera," but that's what drew us in.

On Saturday, we watched the first four installments. Afterwards, my wife and I cautiously read some comments on various social media outlets, careful to avoid any spoilers. I was surprised by the mostly negative reactions I read. So, I stopped reading, deciding to watch the remaining episodes before passing a full judgment. On Sunday, Mrs. P and I wrapped up the series. We really enjoyed it.

Hollywood is piece revisionist history. I don't think that a good portion of the viewing audience understood that. I think it was presented as a work of "historical fiction," with real historical people mixed with and interacting with made-up characters. Based on a lot of the comments that I read, the concept was not apparent enough to those who expected something different. At first, I was bothered by some historical inaccuracies, but once I "got it," I was more forgiving with the liberties that were taken.

Alongside the comments from folks who missed the concept, were angry rants from those who were going to be offended by Hollywood. Hollywood indeed had a message. Those who were offended by the manner in which the message was presented were going to be offended no matter what. They wanted to be offended. They tuned in to be offended and they were not going to be disappointed. Perhaps they also missed the concept of "revisionist history." Or perhaps they just don't want someone else speaking for them, even if they share the same ideals.

I cannot speak for anyone but myself. I enjoyed Hollywood. It was not the greatest story ever told. It was pure, mindless entertainment. It was not a documentary, nor was I expecting it to be. If the successes and failures, injustices and righteousness, highs and lows of Hollywood strike a chord with you... or if you just want to be entertained, give Hollywood a chance... and draw your own conclusion.

Don't take it from me.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

enough about you, let's talk about life for a while

Look, I don't want this to become the "quarantine" blog, so I'd like to make today's post the last one on that subject... at least for a while.

Like you and your neighbor and your co-workers and everyone else across the country (and still in most parts of the world), I am at home. In my house. It's where I have been since March 12. That was the date that I left my place of employment with the computer from my desk, with the instruction from my supervisor to begin working from home as of the morning of the 13th. Since that day, I have ventured out of my house for approximately forty minutes each day to walk around the block with my wife. Twice, during the past seven weeks, I occupied the passenger's seat of my wife's car when we made a delivery of some grocery items to my son's house. We pulled up in front of his home. He popped outside, his face swathed in a makeshift face mask fashioned from a bandanna. He opened the rear hatch of the car and retrieved his items. We had a brief conversation with him as he stood a good seven feet away from us. Then he retreated back into his house and we started for home. We made no physical contact.

My wife is the designated "real world" liaison for me, as well as the extended family that are sequestered at her parents' house a few blocks away. She has graciously volunteered to do the shopping for both of our households in an effort to keep everyone safe. And that's our life. We do what we do and will continue to do what we will do until the concern subsides. And it will.

During this time, I have steered clear of most news broadcasts on television. I will watch a little bit of local news to get information I may need about business closures or changes in hours. Sometimes I'll wait for a weather forecast, but otherwise, I skip that news too. Most news programming has become "doom and gloom" and speculative reporting. I hate news stories that begin: "Well, what if..." That is not a helpful news story. That is the basis for a Marvel comic book.

Mostly what I see on the news is complaints. Complaints from Mrs. and Mrs. Average American who have been inconvenienced by a deadly virus. I understand that staying confined to your house is difficult, but considering that death may be the alternative, I don't see it as that terrible. I've heard people complaining that they can't go to a concert or a ball game or the movies or a restaurant. They complain about having to work from home. They complain about Zoom online meetings. They complain that the supermarket doesn't have that bread that they like. They complain that they can't have a barbecue in their backyard.... although some people complain about it then defiantly have a barbecue anyway.

Really? Really!?!

Thousands and thousands of people work from home every day. Some people have lost those jobs that required them to work from home (myself included). You are being asked to honor these precautions for your own good, for your own safety and well being. Yes, some people need to be guided in this manner. They need to be told how to be safe because a lot of people have no common sense. These people are the reason that chainsaws come with warning labels that caution against grabbing the blade while it's moving.

The ones I find the most upsetting are the heavily-armed angry mobs flocking to the state capital buildings (my own state included) and screaming about being inconvenienced. They don't want the government telling them what to do. (They have no problem with a big, invisible, omniscient being who lives up in the sky telling them what to do, but that's a story for another blog post.) Is it really that difficult to stay home to avoid dying? Is that really a lot to ask?  Are your rights really being compromised?  Y'know, if you die, you'll have no rights at all. If you die, you won't have to worry about staying home or not being able to golf or get a haircut or social distancing. If you die, you'll be six feet away from everybody. Permanently. 

To date, two hundred and forty-thousand people have died as a result of this pandemic. Quit complaining. It's selfish. May I suggest that you suck it up. Stay home. Wash your hands. Shut up. And stop being a cry baby.