Jussie and Donald – Flip Sides of Same Coin

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Two surprising things happened this week. First of all, the completed Mueller report supposedly found no evidence of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. Even more surprising, all charges were dropped against Empire cast member Jussie Smollett for faking a hate crime. While the factions of people who support either of these two men could not be more different, the wheels of justice actually turn for them in exactly the same way.

Donald Trump has gotten a pass on allegations of sexual harassment and assault, unscrupulous and fraudulent business dealings, and the use of campaign funds to pay off porn stars. His clear attempts to derail the investigation into Russian collusion have been treated as rightful exercises of executive privilege. Why has Trump gotten away with vilifying war heroes, mocking the disabled, and denigrating women? He is a powerful celebrity and has friends in high places. For heaven’s sake, he’s got an entire news organization in his corner, deflecting his misdeeds right and left like a tennis ace and redirecting the outrage at their perennial whipping post, Hillary Clinton.

Smollett also has friends in high places who worked on his behalf to help him wriggle out of detestable and criminal actions that would send ordinary people to prison. I’m sure his two days of community service were wrenching and difficult, and that $10,000 forfeit of his bond must have hurt terribly, since he reportedly only makes 6-10 times that per episode on Empire. Not even the lead prosecutor is claiming Smollett to be innocent. Still, we can’t have our celebrities do jail time, can we?

It amuses me that people are calling for the heads of Felicity Huffman, Lori Loughlin and other rich parents who schemed and cheated to get their kids into elite colleges and universities. They were only doing what well-connected people do: leverage their money/influence/celebrity to get ahead and, when their misdeeds become public, weasel out of them.

There have been exceptions, of course. Martha Stewart did time for lying about her financial dealings. And Bill Cosby was actually convicted and sent to prison for sexual assault. But for the most part, rich and famous people just get away with behaving badly.

There are still investigations pending about the business dealings of Trump and his children. I’m skeptical that anything will come of them. We have a different set of rules for the famous and well-connected. Until that changes, we can assume Lady Justice is peeking under that blindfold.

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Londonderry Air

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Derry-Girls-Ep-2-2054-1068x623In honor of the wearin’ o’ the green and all things Irish today, St. Patrick’s Day, I’d like to recommend a hilarious Netflix comedy called Derry Girls. The comedy series was not on my radar until my very Irish friend Maura recommended it on Facebook. In no time at all, I had binge-watched my way through the trials and tribulations of four teenage girls and one male English cousin living in Derry, Northern Ireland, in the 1990s.

The featured teens in Derry Girls have a delightful mixture of innocence and bravado as they navigate the social scene in their Irish Catholic enclave. They don’t realize how economically disadvantaged they are until they try to sign up for a school trip to France and find out that none of them has a trust fund, and in fact they are all quite poor.

But their economic and social limitations do nothing to cramp their irrepressible style, and each episode features new shenanigans and repercussions from their parents and their school. The girls (and cousin) attend an all girls Catholic high school presided over by a scene-stealing nun, whose dry wit and jaded attitude make her the perfect foil for both troublemaker and goody two shoes alike.  When the girls fall for a dreamy young priest, Sister’s facial expressions alone are priceless.

It seems unlikely to find humor in a show about a divided country that pitted Protestants against Catholics and in which car bombings and assassinations were commonplace. Indeed, toward the end of Season 1, things take a darker turn and only deepen the viewer’s appreciation for the life-affirming and youthful spirit of these young people.

So grab a pint of Guinness, put your feet up, and enjoy an episode or three of the fabulous Derry Girls. Your Irish eyes won’t be the only things smiling!

 

Fact or Fiction?

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During Oscar season, I noticed that many of the nominated movies featured real people: pianist Don Shirley in Green Book, Ron Stallworth in BlacKkKlansman, author Lee Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, and, of course, the late great Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. The film Vice told the story of the Bush years with uncanny performances by Christian Bale as Dick Cheney, Sam Rockwell as George W., and Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney. The Favourite, though a work of fiction, depicted Queen Anne, a real life historical figure. Even Roma was a thinly disguised autobiographical story of director Alfonso Cuaron’s childhood.

In the Trump era, truth is certainly stranger and more riveting than any fiction could be. Each news day features a revolving cast of characters in the White House, manic tweets from the president at all hours of the night, investigations, accusations, and counter accusations. Fox News has become little more than Trump’s mouthpiece, and suddenly fictional stories like Wag the Dog, Being There, and, most ominously, 1984 have become eerily prescient.

Yet the world of fiction still holds a fascinating allure. While the MPAA favored reality film in its Oscar nominations this year, superheroes and their villains dominated the box office. Such films as Venom, Aquaman, Deadpool 2, Ant Man and the Wasp – as well as the latest sequels in such franchises as Spiderman and The Avengers – all made tidy profits for the movie studios at a time when theater audiences have been dwindling. The smash hit Black Panther, the first black superhero movie, was even nominated for Best Picture along with numerous technical awards.

Our appetite for escapism will always co-exist with our interest in real life drama. And the intersection of the two is often the key to unlocking truths about the human condition. I’m thinking particularly of dystopian and science fiction. These genres take us into the future, but they are really making commentaries on the present. I recently read Joyce Carol Oates’ latest novel, The Hazards of Time Travel, which depicts an authoritarian North American state in 2039. The main character, who has the temerity to ask questions and think for herself, is sent back to 1959 Wisconsin for “re-education.” As I read the book, I couldn’t help thinking about the slogan “Make America Great Again.” The manipulation of truth, control over the media, and other horrors of Oates’ fictional future feel ominously close to American society today.

Fact or fiction? Either way, our interest in stories may be the key to saving civilization. As long as we are able to think and feel about the human condition, we will continue to question and challenge the status quo. In the legendary words of Abraham Lincoln, “you may fool all the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all the time: but you can’t fool all of the people all the time.”

As we venture into another presidential election cycle (God help us!), let’s hope Honest Abe was right.

 

Falling Star*

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* There are spoilers in this blog post.

It took me a while to get around to seeing the latest iteration of A Star Is Born. I’d seen two of the previous three versions and figured I knew the story backwards and forwards. And I was somewhat right. The Oscar-nominated fourth version doesn’t really break new ground except to give us some beautiful new ballads in the Lady Gaga oeuvre and to make us aware that actor Bradley Cooper has some musical chops.

But as Cooper, who directed, co-wrote, and starred in the film, says in a special features extra, there is something so timeless and powerful about this story of gaining and losing stardom, of love against the odds. In each of the four versions of A Star Is Born, a movie or music star falls in love with an unknown talent, whose star begins to rise as his begins to fall.

The latest version of Star is particularly good at depicting the ruthlessness of the entertainment world, which deprives a person of privacy and is pitiless when that star fumbles. In a chilling scene towards the end of the movie, Ally’s manager tells her addict husband Jack, “We’re not friends,” and goes on to chastise him for jeopardizing Ally’s career and to assure him she’d be better off without him, indirectly impelling Jack to take his own life.

The film also shows that the business side of artistic creation can sometimes be damaging to the art. Jack becomes disgusted with the pop star package Ally has become, with dyed hair and backup dancers and inane songs about sexiness. Although his hurtful criticism is tinged with envy and fueled by alcohol, he does have a point. The Ally he fell in love with, musically and personally, seems compromised by the demands of fame.

Artists often pay a high price for their gifts. Many of our greatest painters, musicians, composers, and writers have been tormented by mental illness or substance addiction. They have often lost any semblance of a family life as they became consumed by both their artistic visions and their demons. Perhaps those demons are what compelled them to become artists in the first place.

In any event, A Star Is Born shows us the high price of stardom, the loneliness of artistic minds, and the choices we make for love. While I’m not sure we needed yet another version of this timeless story, I did enjoy the soulful journey taken by these two characters as portrayed by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper.

And I’m still haunted by the lines of the song Ally and Jack sing together:

When the sun goes down
And the band won’t play
I’ll always remember us this way

 

The Soundtrack of Our Lives

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The other day I heard “Shallow,” a Grammy-award winning song from the movie A Star Is Born. I must confess to having been underwhelmed. Maybe that’s because I haven’t yet seen the film and thus have no context for appreciating the song.

It has often been true for me that the associations I make with a particular song affect how much I enjoy it. For example, I had always found John Lennon’s “Imagine” to be a bit of a dirge. Then I heard it played at the very end of the excellent, devastating Cambodian war film The Killing Fields. As the hero walks across a field to the safety of a Red Cross refugee camp, Lennon’s words took on new poignance for me: “Imagine there’s no country. … Nothing to kill or die for. … Imagine all the people living life in peace.”

A similar example is the 80s song “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” by Simple Minds. Like many tunes of that time period, it sounded to me as if the lead singer were under water. But when the song closed out the popular John Hughes film The Breakfast Club, it felt more like an anthem for the youth of America.

In that era, MTV was extremely influential in the wedding of the visual with the auditory. The station began as a platform for music videos with VJs instead of DJs introducing and commenting on the current hits. Many actresses and models got their breaks after being featured in these popular videos. And once you’d seen the music video, it was impossible not to think of the images when you heard the song on the radio.

Many songs bring back memories that make them more special than they might otherwise have been to us. I will never forget cruising around aimlessly with my high school friends as “The Boys Are Back in Town” blared from the car stereo. Similarly, songs like “Fly Like an Eagle,” “Evil Woman,” and anything by Boston take me back to my freshman year in college when I was just learning to be on my own. The song “Brick House” always conjures a smile as I picture myself with my good friend Barb out on the dance floor showing off our moves. And I will always be grateful to the Eagles for picking me up with the song “Already Gone” as I was coming to terms with a romantic breakup.

Moving forward musically in time, I have found a satellite radio station called PopRocks that brings me back to the early 2000s when my kids were just starting to get into popular music. One day back then I was driving my daughter and a couple of her friends somewhere when the Eminem song “Without Me” came on the radio. To my total surprise, the girls started belting out all the words to Slim Shady’s popular rap song. I knew then that the days of Disney-themed pop were behind us.

Music will always offer a backdrop to the times of our lives, good and bad. Our associations based on movies, television, and our own life experiences form a powerful connection to particular songs and even sometimes entire albums. I’ll have to give “Shallow” another shot after I see the movie from which it originates. It just may become one of my favorites.

 

 

Decisions, Decisions

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1-56“I’m just saying that any decision made, big or small, has an impact around the world.” This statement by Marty Byrde, the main character in the Netflix series Ozark, encapsulates the main theme of the show. Marty is an ordinary accountant whose one decision has serious repercussions for his family and for just about everyone with whom he comes into contact. Like Lake Ozark, the moody locale of the series, a placid existence can experience the ripple effects of that first pebble dropped into it.

Every day we make decisions: what to eat, what to wear, which roads to take to work. Will I exercise or sit around? Should I give a dollar to the homeless man on the corner? Sometime our decisions are momentous: Should I ask the woman I love to marry me? Should I take the job in California? Sometimes we don’t even realize we are making a life-changing choice: What will it hurt if we skip using the condom this once?

Most of us, though, go about our ordinary lives without considering that each little action  can have far-reaching consequences. Every smile, every kind word we speak to another person can influence someone’s mood and possibly affect the rest of their day. The accumulation of good habits and actions has an even greater effect on our lives, our health, and our relationships.

Of course, the reverse is also true. Small lies or cutting corners in our business dealings can add up. It’s a truism that someone who can be trusted in small things can also be trusted with the big things. The way we treat our loved ones and others in our lives also can become an accumulation of small hurts, small digs at another’s self-esteem. I think people underestimate the effects of their words on others, especially cruel or denigrating words.

The fascinating aspect of a series like Ozark is the depiction of someone not all that different from ourselves who digs himself deeper and deeper into a life he had never imagined or wanted for himself. And even though Marty Byrde acts a bit cold-blooded as he explains his philosophy about decision-making, he is descending into a moral and psychological abyss as his actions threaten to destroy the very thing he seeks to protect: his family.

 

 

I’ll Be There For You

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Rumors that Netflix was about to drop the iconic Nineties series Friends from its lineup put my daughter and me into a frenzy. We’d started watching reruns of the smash hit 10-season comedy the year before and were determined to make it through to the final episode, which originally aired on May 6, 2004, and was the most-watched series finale at the time.

I’d watched Friends on and off when it originally aired but never really encouraged my kids to tune in to the inevitable reruns that popped up in syndication a few years later. For one thing, there’s a lot of frank talk about sex and hooking up, a subject I didn’t really want my kids being privy to. I also thought the series might seem dated to the generation growing up on smartphones and laptops. By the time our youngest was in high school, I had relaxed my standards. After all, she was already watching shows like Gossip Girl and One Tree Hill.

So the two of us started capping off our days with a nightly viewing of a Friends episode or two. The series starts off awkwardly. The laughs seem forced, and the chemistry among the characters takes a few episodes to develop. My daughter seemed unimpressed as she sat through those first few episodes stone-faced.  After a while, though, she and I found ourselves laughing hysterically at the foibles of the six young adults living and working in New York City.

Never mind that Friends shared the unrealistic depiction of NYC that almost every movie and TV show has over the years. Despite their lack of funds or spectacular jobs, the friends live in spacious apartments in the heart of Manhattan. They spend inordinate amounts of time at a coffee shop instead of at their jobs. Ross and Rachel each have young children, but they are conveniently out of the picture for entire episodes.

But looking for realism in a sitcom is a fool’s errand, and over this past year, my daughter and I have found much to enjoy about the show. There are just so many laugh-out-loud moments, such as when Joey gets a turkey carcass stuck on his head. Recurring characters such as Janice with her donkey bray of a laugh also add to the humor. The actors who portray the six core friends are expert physical comedians. Sometimes their facial expressions alone cause hilarity.

But what truly makes Friends a special series are the many moments of true love and sacrifice that the characters make for each other throughout the series. There are serious subjects tackled in Friends, including a sexual abuse storyline that is played for laughs but also gets the point across that what happened to Joey as a child and then Chandler as an adult was inappropriate and wrong. The series also deals with infertility, adoption, excessive drinking, and the pain of divorce. And the way these six friends help each other through the bad times is a reminder of the theme song lyrics, “I’ll be there for you.”

One of the other most popular sitcoms of the Nineties was Seinfeld. It also featured a group of friends living in New York City. But the tone was more cynical and heartless. Not one of the main characters was particularly sympathetic, and they weren’t all that kind or supportive of each other. So it was easy to laugh at each of them when bad things happened to them. You kind of felt that they deserved it. Friends was an entirely different kind of comedy. Although the characters could at times be selfish and competitive, when push came to shove, they always chose their friendship over themselves.

It turns out the rumors about Netflix ditching its Friends were unfounded. The series will continue to be streamed through 2019. That gives my daughter and me a little breathing room as we head into the home stretch in season 10. But as hooked as we are on our late night bonding over the trials and tribulations of Monica, Ross, Rachel, Chandler, Joey, and Phoebe, I suspect we will have finished the series before we ring in the New Year.