Friday, January 22, 2016

Concussion vs. Joy: Is it fair to compare?


Our nation's greatest heroes include our movie stars; therefore a nomination for Best Actor or Actress is like being nominated as a hero. Are we being told that this year we have no black heroes?A line from the movie Concussion:

“When I was a boy...heaven was here—and America was here. You could be anything, do anything...”

Will in Concussion

Except be nominated as best actor in a movie with a ground-breaking subject, if you happen to be Will Smith in the second all-white year of Oscars. Whoops! Ground-breaking subject matter never had anything to do with whether a movie is good or not. Yet, it never hurts, as long as the subject-matter does not outweigh the story and the integrity of the movie.

(Spoilers from start to finish.)

Yes, I too am blinded by the white this year, and not completely snowed by the authentic talent of  Jennifer Lawrence and all the other glowing white skins walking around in JOY.

Jennifer in Joy

Of course it’s not fair to compare Joy to Concussion, and ludicrous to compare Jennifer Lawrence's performance to Will Smith's, but what's fair got to do with it? 

The two movies have several things in common: 

1. Neither were nominated for Best Movie,  (in spite of the fact of having one-word titles, which seems to be a strong factor this year).

2. They both were based on factual stories.

The great playwright Paddy Chayefsky, who won an Oscar for best screenplay based on factual material, said that a writer should remove everything that has no relevance to the story and --
if there’s a gun in the first scene, it should go off by the last.

In Joy, we have the scene where a gun is initially mentioned, and later the scene where a gun is shot and  yet, by movie’s end, we’re still waiting for the real bang. In Concussion, Will Smith is the gun that appears in the NFL world and by the movie's end more than one gun goes off with tragic results. More than one player appears to have committed suicide due to the anguish caused by this disease. Backstory discussed in this thought-provoking Chicago Trib piece about the politics of sports and how Concussion factors in.

Joy is a hero movie—woman invents a mop 

the real Joy Mangano, who is played by Jennifer

and succeeds against all odds to have it manufactured and ultimately make a lot of money on it.

Concussion is a hero movie—a forensic pathologist 

Dr. Bennet Omalu, who is played by Will

discovers a dangerous and degenerative brain disease known as CTE in football players, and against all odds succeeds in naming the disease, making it known, which lead to the post-humous diagnoses of 87 of 91 former NFL players who had donated their brains to research.

There is no category of hero movies in the Academy Awards, and no actor has been nominated based on the social or political value of the movie he or she starred in. Yet, how many actors have been nominated for great performances in movies that are not worthy of a nomination. It is a given that a movie must have a certain amount of oomph, at least enough power to produce a role worth starring in.

Not every hero has to be a 

the movie Gandhi

Rosa Parks

It’s fine if the hero is a cartoon panda or an eighty year old human of any race, religion, sex or sexual preference in any state of mental or emotional or physical health.

I happen to like a hero movie where the hero becomes closer to his or her purpose, and as a result, to others; a door is opened that sometimes makes us feel redeemed for some of our own unsung efforts, or else opens a door for future courage—or simply makes us stand up and cheer, as one individual braves the world, and against all odds, succeeds.


This formula even applies to movies like Hangover 2—all the Jim Carey movies, and even the most obscure cult movies, from Donny Darko to Pee Wee’s Great Adventure to  Dancer in the Dark.

Both the Jennifer Lawrence character and the Will Smith character succeed through tenacity, and acts courage and by enduring. But I also want to see hearts grow, and the ways others are transformed around the hero, and what she or he brings to the world.

Joy brings a mop—and yes, a steely determination; but  for all Lawrence’s gifts, the script falls short of offering the source and visceral substance of this determination. It just comes upon her like a virus.

Too many devices and too little heartfelt emotion. Instead of a woman who was doing something for her kids as well as her own inner child—we more often see a narcissist and obsessive. Who is this cypher? If not for Jennifer’s soul what would this character be? It is often solely the actor who lends humanity to the work, rather than that divine movie magic we crave—where the actors mind mingles with the mind of the creator, or even the actual Joy who inspired this movie.

A movie maker has no responsibility except to have a vision and carry it out with integrity. Great movies never offer a dilemma and then gloss it over,  hoping it will pass as a nuance of human inconstancy or one of life’s ambiguities. It is not resolve that is called for, but integrity of vision, of story, of acting, of directing. Integrity and excellence allows for genuine ambiguity. All the elements in a winning movie serve the vision. The viewer’s disbelief is suspended from opening scene to closing credits—we are free to relax and trust rather than
use our brains to fill in the dots.

I just get the sense that there is more dirt underneath, hidden behind things, and some of it is good dirt, the fertile kind. We can’t wipe away our transgressions and issues of character with a bucket and mop, or fix them with a movie. I don’t want a movie to preach at me, or fix the world, but do not leap over serious issues with a wink and a nod, as if the cuteness of  the Focker /DeNiro character

Bonus quiz: is this Focker De Niro or Joy De Niro?

 will absolve him from hurling verbal abuse and shards of china throughout his family’s daily life. Do not expect me to believe that Joy maintains an otherworldly calm through every episode of disfunction in her family, or that the queer narration –( as intermittent as a weak radio signal)--of her grandma
forms the entire basis of her uncanny mental stability, until she cracks all at once and is seemingly relieved-- and begins her hero’s journey --all due to a vision induced by an overdose of expired children’s cough medicine. (although admittedly things like that have happened to me.)

Likewise, do not think the inclusion of a Hispanic friend, some warm and bubbly factory worker stereotypes and a strange plumber who shares bowls of weird substances with the character’s mom will cover all the bases of political correctness. After all, it is so hard to keep up with what’s correct these days! What—couldn’t squeeze a transgender person in there? To include a stereotype, a cardboard character who has no function beyond being a kind of placeholder for someone’s guilty conscience is as bad as profiling. 

Do we have Caucasian counterpart stereotypes in Concussion and times of bland characterization and overall arcs of less than substantial conflict where Smith must carry the day just as Lawrence does? You decide! 

Both Lawrence and Smith always or often bring it, because they are juicy humans and good actors. 
Never mind the critiques of same six expressions--they both have enough range and beauty to keep you watching and wanting to believe. But which do you believe more?

In the movie Concussion, in my opinion, the intense subject matter does not outweigh authentic character development, and hence allows the lead actor more breadth and depth of performance.

As for Joy, I am thrilled that a single mom with lots of bad breaks is celebrated for pushing through to believing in herself and her dreams and rising to success in spite of much adversity. As a subject-matter, it is potentially as powerful as any medical discovery--I only wish, in both cases, that the heroes behind these fictions would continue to live on in my heart due to the beauty of the movies, which includes, but can never be solely carried by the actors who depict them.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

All -white Oscars a step backwards for mankind: here's why

I was thrilled as a child when Marlon Brando declined his Oscar for  Best Actor for (The Godfather,)  back in 1973, to protest the treatment of Native Americans by the film industry. Not because I was such a political child, although I did care about human rights; it was more that something shocking, unexpected and somehow very alive and human was happening in the midst of pageantry and glitz.

This year, I too, am blinded by the white!

Simple logic: We are a diverse nation. Are we expected to believe that there is a higher percentage of Caucasian talent in the field of acting, compared to the talent and abilities of African American, Hispanic, Asian, Native American talent? And all the other races not mentioned? Let’s assume that this is not the case.

Therefore, if the actors nominated for the Academy Awards represent the best in the business at this time, then why are only Caucasian actors represented? All 20 acting nominations went to white actors!

The question of why the Oscars are all-white again for the second year in a row is not the easiest to answer, and the solution is as complex as we wish to make it.

A shift in consciousness is what is called for, and what this will take, I do not know, except history tells us this shift occurs when one or a few stand up and take action, a tipping point occurs, something is uncorked and justice, for a time beings to flow. Sometimes progress is made, but often, in the case of inequality and prejudice it seems there are many steps backward during this timeline. 

An all -white roster of nominees indicates a step backwards.

It doesn’t matter if it is due to lack of great roles for non-Caucasians, lack of consciousness or objectivity on the part of the judges, ignorance or apathy—and it is certainly a combination of many factors. What matters is that something is off-balance. The world of talented actors is not being accurately represented.

Hopefully awareness of this issue will awaken care and understanding, some measure of clarity, and some decisions to make a positive effort to change--ourselves and the choices we make. We do not need to think in terms of inclusion so much as picking our heads up and taking off the blinders, seeing what is real and making our choices based on a reality more in line with the truth--even, or especially when it comes to our beloved movies, in this magical Oscar world that is bigger and brighter, than our own. The realm of movies is potentially unlimited--so why not go with that vision, instead of this narrow one?

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

oscars so white : why it matters

We should care about what's going on with the Oscars two years in a row.

Will Smith was not nominated for his knock-out performance in "Concussion."  Idris Elba and Abraham Attah were overlooked for their critically acclaimed roles in "Beasts of No Nation."
"Change is coming, but it's going to take its sweet time," Eldris said in a speech to the British Parliament in a packed hearing yesterday. This is not just a North American issue.
 Tessa Thompson and Michael B. Jordan were not nominated, in spite of  their powerful performances in "Creed."

Someone asked me if I thought it was intentional. As if there was a party going on and someone was not invited because they were Jewish, or blind, or gay.  This is how many white people think. Well did they do it on purpose? When did the movie business become a club that gets to pick who is invited?

Ever since certain standards of beauty began to rule our world.
Replace Jennifer Lawrence with a character actor, say someone with dark frizzy hair, non -smoldering eyes, a schlumpy body and non-sultry voice.  Would that actor have a chance for nomination with the script exactly as is? Would the mop-inventor the movie was based on have a chance to rise to the top "against all odds" if she had not been blonde and attractive according to this same standard of beauty? And what if we had a movie about an African American mop-maker--would that be a box office hit?

How many African American actors have been nominated for a movie where race was not a relevant factor or at least subtext? How ironic that anyone should suggest race does not matter, least of all in the movie industry. Imagine if every white actor played only in movies about race, and all the romantic comedies and epic adventures and science fiction films were cast exclusively with Asian, Hispanic and African American actors.  

Exclusion may or may not be intentional, but inclusion--or more specifically, the genuine state of being an inclusive human being, is a quality that can be learned and cultivated, and in some cases we choose to set a standard for inclusion, otherwise we will revert back to the oh, whatever mode of operation. Perhaps inclusion is not the opposite of exclusion but simply a crafty variant, because the very word implies that there is a group that makes the choices about inviting or dissing.

To many,  it is a question of honoring those who deserve to be honored. Period. To some white people this is a no big deal non-situation. (Just like Katrina!) It just happened! Right? Why is everyone so hurt about it? 

But the exclusion of people of  diverse background and race from an American Institution is about more than offended feelings; it's issue of human rights. 

I've been thinking about this issue and writing about it for days, and have become humbled. Each aspect opens another door and raises another question, and at the core is a rotten root that I personally can not speak about clearly or eloquently, either in illuminating the issues or offering solutions. I can only turn the light of inquiry onto myself. I can only say I feel crushed about the state of  inequality and the lack of justice in our world and the cruelty and the exclusivity, every time I witness it in the world at large or fall victim to it, as a member of a variety of subcultures. It is obviously not just feelings or careers but lives which hang in the balance when it comes to issues of racism, prejudice and inequality.

All I can do is become accountable for my own actions and reactions and come to be aware of my own choices. Become willing to be conscious of what I am doing and why I am doing it, and witness whether my action bring unity or division. And learn.

I learned a lot in my mostly white hipster town when I stood for a few hours last summer with a sign that said #blacklivesmatter. The racist filth that was spewed from the mouths of more than one bystander as well as the support of other onlookers who took up signs, was not that surprising; what was most surprising is that when I repeated the story, many were shocked: not in our town! Yes in our town! Perhaps even in your own mind!

What many white people don't understand and never will, is that there is not a level playing field.

Here are some areas where there is a level playing field for people of all races, cultures, genders and sexual and religious preferences, and all mental capacities and physical capacities:

We all are born, we all die; we all bleed and breathe.

If only we all had the same potential to suffer and to feel compassion, to be open to new ways of
thinking and acting so we might live lives that are more meaningful, useful, enjoyable and manageable. Some say we do!

It's taken me half a century to get to the point where I can stop making excuses long enough to listen and consider other's ways and other's rights, and the effect my actions and words have on others--in a healthy way. I'm not talking about shoving down my feelings or the truth of my heart and wisdom, but saying yes to life, yes to positive action, yes to achievement. One turning point for me has been to turn to the goal of unity and diversity and to turn to solutions rather than proving I'm right or having my way.

Some things are deal breakers. I can't say yes to physical and mental abuse. But physical and mental abuse is threaded through our world in so many subtle ways. I can't dictate what the powers that be--(of the Academy Awards crew, or of the heads of corporations or states, or even my landlord)--should do, only make a choice about what I will do today.

I appreciate that there is a controversy happening over the all white Academy Awards nominees
and that the Academy president has issued a statement about the lack of diversity and plans for the future. This opens the door to discussion and inquiry and we hope, fresh air, better movies and justice for more if not all.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Two free Dakota Lane books now!

INVISIBLE SAINTS, romantic Y/A  sequel to JOHNNY VOODOO, here. (New installments on WATTPAD, a site that is very much alive with young readers and writers.)

When I went to New Orleans to volunteer two years post-Katrina the Ninth Ward still didn't have many working traffic lights and some of the kids I worked with still had not been placed in a charter school.

I promised a ten year old girl I would write a book for her age group--and I did, and it's set in
a New Orleans disaster.

It's called Shine, and it's available here on SMASHWORDS, also for free, and I would love to get it in the schools. Alternate name is: IN CASE OF EMERGENCY. I can't say my book's the book, but it would be great if we had SOME books dealing with disaster for mid-grade readers. ANd def some awareness of what happened in New Orleans as well as the aftermath.

As that little girl is now twenty(!!!) she is probably too old for young adult book set in New Orleans, but she was only 15 when I wrote INVISIBLE SAINTS  (and Shine) in my home in Phoenicia.

Literally a week after I finished writing the books Hurricane Irene struck, I lost my house, and it took
until now to get back on my feet, sit back and say--ah, I remember those books. Time to share them.

SAINTS  is the sequel to Johnny Voodoo (an American Library Association Best Book)
and I have quite a few adult fans of that book!
Put it next to the dystopian and blood-filled books of today and it is probably very innocent--
but I wanted something to get in the kids hands that had no curses or graphic scenes. Suitable for school libraries. Available for free. It's the least I could do. Some people leave their hearts in San Francisco, I definitely left a chunk of mine in New Orleans, particularly the Ninth Ward.

If you know a young reader who might enjoy either book, or a teacher who wants this in the schools, pass this on!

Monday, January 4, 2016

Intention App: Just do it

 Say it. Touch the dot. Take action.

Premium version: Dot glows, spreads, becomes a radiant sun.
Opening bars of spirit-rousing music. 
Like this.
Or this.
might prefer this
or this or this.

Customizable human, mythical creature, coach maniac, superhero or awesome angel appears before you, intoning words of encouragement: 
You are entirely empowered! Got your back! Give it a shot! You can, you will and you are doing it!
Or perhaps just blinks.

Next: Set out. Take the action. Do your best.

Then: Report back. Text or call someone. Thank your Higher Power. Put it in your progress book. Tell me about it, I care!

Finally: Reward! A little ding. A karma point. An inner glow.
An innocent treat.

  If the goal is possible, worthy, and brings you in line with
your true self--then every step you take towards it 
somehow makes it run towards you.