Movies That Most Influenced My Life (So Far)

Shortly before the 90th Annual Academy Awards aired this past weekend, I took an online quiz asking how many of the 89 previous Best Pictures I had seen. Somewhat to my shock, the answer was 70. While many of these were late-night film society screenings during college when I was a projectionist, that’s still a lot of wasted youth.

Or was it?

With this year’s Oscars behind us, I thought it an apt time to confess the 10 (actually 20) most significant commercial motion pictures that have impacted my thinking and creative process. You probably know I read a lot of books, but I wanted to share with you some of the filmed stories that have most shaped me as a writer.

Although a few of those 70 Best Pictures are noted below, many of my choices are further off the ranch. Should you agree or disagree, I hope you might share your own favorites with me privately or publicly, particularly as they have influenced your creative thinking.

These are not in specific order, although they are directionally stacked. They all matter to me, and while my reasons are kept deliberately brief, I hope some of the influences come through in my own writing as you may experience it. No apologies, this aesthetic is a bit of who I am!

1. Apocalypse Now (1979)

It’s based on Joseph Conrad’s forever-haunting Heart of Darkness. It was supposed to be Marlon Brando’s crown achievement, but that honor went to Martin Sheen. This Francis Ford Coppola masterpiece breathes the existential and freezes in time the horror of the Vietnam War with natural metaphor and nuance. “The End” by The Doors is the glue in its arc, and Robert Duvall demonstrates in a few brief lines that insanity is a product of subjectivity. The movie poster has been in my home office for over 30 years. It means that much to me.

2. All That Jazz (1979)

Bob Fosse’s unforgettably dark self-portrait took his kinetic style of dance and nonlinear storytelling from stage to screen. When I first saw Roy Scheider smoking in the shower it strangely gave me solace to know I wasn’t the only person who did that. I gave up smoking long ago, but not the image of this wildly imperfect creative force. Curious it was released the same year as Apocalypse Now. It is just as creepy, just as thought-provoking, and just as hard to imagine ever being replicated in rhythm or texture.

3. Amadeus (1984)

The stage version of Amadeus changed my life by forcing me to look into the eyes of gift and mediocrity, so the film version should have been doomed by physical separation of the ephemeral. Joyously it made it through the system unblemished and leapt off the screen with passion, suffering, orchestral grandeur, and tragic demise. Milos Forman’s adaptation to the screen has everything going for it except Tim Curry, and if you don’t know he’s supposed to be there, the rest is superb. As the Emperor Joseph II repeatedly concludes, “Well, there it is.”

4. Casablanca (1942)

If there were ever a need for proof that a movie could simultaneously be a romantic love triangle, a piercing polemic, an adventure story with life-and-death stakes, and a slice of life that looks at war caustically through the lives of individuals, this is the perfect brew. Toss in the eternal Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman and you barely notice the Nazis surrounding them. Well, you do notice them, you’re supposed to know they’re there. That’s what ups the stakes and allows the endless deflection of one-liners to be etched into memory.

5. The Wizard of Oz (1939)

It’s a perfect movie, from a perfect book, with perfect music and a perfect cast. It’s a living time capsule, and if anyone is delusional enough to think they’ll ever prove the American musical is not a serious form of art, make them watch this once a year for the rest of their lives. You’re probably starting to see from this list that I have a leaning toward musicals, but only when they have an edge, and only when they become a part of the soundtrack of our lives. That obsession begins with Dorothy and her rainbow.

6. The Right Stuff (1983)

Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager in an adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s lyrical New Journalism account of America’s entry into the space race—if there is anything that can be put on-screen better, I’ll be first in line and watch a day’s worth of repeat showings. We can never forget this seminal chain of events in American history, because in so many ways the Mercury astronauts bridged the Second World War to the scientific present. Sam, Chuck, Tom, all heroes of mine, and director Philip Kaufman stitched together the launch plan and fired it into orbit.

7. Lenny (1974)

Before Dustin Hoffman gave into being the movie star version of himself, he played Lenny Bruce in a remarkable character study also brilliantly directed by Bob Fosse. I have been a student of Lenny Bruce all my life, and while there have been many renditions of who he was and why he mattered, Fosse pulled off the definitive portrait by pulling Hoffman’s strings and using editing as an interpreter to punctuate the sting of language in a world that needed to listen.

8. Stand by Me (1986)

I was never much of a Stephen King fan. His short story upon which this film is based, “The Body,” changed that forever. This grounded tale is presented as a simple coming-of-age story that is wildly not simple, but instead a real-life parable of the naive courage and joy of childhood that becomes the fear and challenges of our adult lives. Once in my life I hope to write a line of dialogue as solid and well placed as “Suck my fat, one you cheap dime-store hood.”

9. Patton (1970)

With Francis Ford Coppola behind the typewriter and George C. Scott owning the wide-screen, this “blood and guts” gem proved to me it was possible to make a highly political film that confirmed the biases of every side of the aisle. It’s pro-war if you want it to be, anti-war if you want it to be, and proof that a literary interpretation of history is a compelling way to get people talking with each other about decisions and consequences that matter.

10. Yellow Submarine (1969)

Please don’t laugh milk through your nose on this one, but if you know me, you know Pepperland is forever part of me. Okay, so I attempted to write a sequel when I was 17 because I loved The Beatles that much and knew I always would, but why is the toy sub on my desk, the iconic blanket on  my sofa, and the logo clock on the wall? I will never shake those Blue Meanies.

To be fully confessional, here are my 10 runners-up with even more restricted commentary, begging your imagination to extend my expository:

11. The Deer Hunter (1978)

Meryl Streep arrives in an epic yarn where the horror of Vietnam is actually fictionally manipulated to make the idea of war even more horrible than the reality. The creative license pushes credibility to the wall, but with reason and deliberate intention to make change happen.

12. Field of Dreams (1989)

Fathers, sons, loss, regret, unanswered voices, spiritual rebirth, Iowa cool, and baseball. If you never played the game it still makes you feel its gravitational essence.

13.  2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Kubrick and Clarke saw a future spectrum the rest of us wouldn’t inhabit for decades. Scoring it with Richard Strauss and Johann Strauss was even more mind-blowing.

14. Network (1976)

Paddy Chayevsky sculpted the words and Peter Finch enshrined them: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore.” Now we live this.

15. The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988)

Love, sensuality, and fleeting artistry exploded by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Author Milan Kundera distanced himself from the film, but director Philip Kaufman never lets your eyes leave the characters on-screen.

16. Hair (1979)

Another Milos Forman interpretation of culture and generations run amok, proving that stage-to-screen musicals can last forever when they hit every note. The Age of Aquarius lives embedded in Central Park.

17. Pink Floyd The Wall (1982)

Director Alan Parker puts his blustery visual stamp on one of the most enduring rock concept albums and alienation conceits of all time. Fascism is revealed for skeptics in connect-the-dots human unraveling.

18. Dead Poets Society (1989)

Behold the living argument against cynical compromise that makes poetry relevant and teachers the vital yet imperfect heroes to our younger selves.

19. Midnight Express (1978)

This nerve bender could be the case study for “Just Say No.” If this Alan Parker film written by Oliver Stone didn’t scare you off from crossing borders with the wrong stuff, your bravado was misplaced.

20. Young Frankenstein (1974)

It’s a slapstick comedy with literary roots that never stops being funny. Mel Brooks is a national treasure.

Well, that’s a wrap. I told you it was an eclectic and eccentric list, but some of each of these is in the stories I tell, the characters I share, and the images I try to illustrate. I hope this sheds some light on my world and opens a dialogue between us.

Dialogue, yeah. I do like dialogue!

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Photo: Pexels

Dan Rather Live

Last week I attended a talk with Dan Rather, who is on the road in support of his latest book, What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism. Produced by Live Talks Los Angeles, it was an especially engaging conversation because he was interviewed by someone equally interesting and unique, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Kareem made it clear this was an unusual gig for him because he is usually the one answering rather than asking interview questions. He opened with the observation that what he and Rather have in common is that today each of them is considered an elder statesman. Without missing the lightness of the moment, Rather jumped into the dialogue and made it clear that he does not think of himself in any way as a statesman. He also declared with humility that he is not a philosopher or a political scientist, just a very lucky reporter grateful to have enjoyed a long career in professional journalism.

I have to admit that I am quite the fan of Dan Rather. I was in college when he was passed the torch from Walter Cronkite. In those days anchoring the day’s national  news wrap-up was both a high honor and enormous responsibility. I was raised on the CBS Evening News and to this day it remains a welcome friend in my home, played back late at night from a digital recording. The anchor chair has changed hands several times over the years, but when Rather sat there, he carried the weight of the world’s biggest stories with dignity, authenticity, precision, and charm.

I found Rather’s comments that evening so insightful and energizing, I wanted to share a few of his thoughts in hopes that those who share my regard for his career know that his voice is still resonating, and those who are unfamiliar with him might choose to discover the depth of his observations.

“News is what powerful people don’t want you to know,” he offered with certainty. He defined the job of journalism as getting the story that others may be hiding, and that is why journalists are often unpopular with people in high places. This has always been the job as he sees it, finding out what the public needs to know no matter who doesn’t want the public to know it. Mistakes will be made along the way, and he as much as anyone knows there is a severe price to reporting news imperfectly let alone incorrectly, but if a reporter on the beat does not understand that uncovering the hidden story through research is what matters, then that journalist is not much of a journalist.

To that end and in answer to several questions about our current President, Rather observed that Donald Trump is a fearful man. The awkward speech patterns and erratic management behavior of Trump suggest a man who is “very afraid of something.” As a journalist, Rather sees in Trump’s tone glaring similarities to other political leaders who have attempted to cover their tracks, and in so doing he believes this fear will only become heightened as the investigations around him intensify.

In response to broad attempts to discredit the media with sweeping labels of “fake news,” Rather acknowledged that the news landscape today is cluttered with an enormous number of competitive brands, but that to lump them together as equal in diligence or relevance makes little sense. He reminded us that without journalism a democracy will perish, and that widely dismissing media with the catch-all critique of irresponsibility was the most dangerous conclusion we could reach. We have choices in media, and we need to make those as individuals in evaluating standards of discipline. This is a significantly more cluttered playing field than it was in the days of the “Big Three” television networks, but the rules of fact-supported journalism haven’t changed and the idea of uniformly devaluing reporters is a tactic of tyranny.

Rather spent a lot of time talking about the frightening path of authoritarianism fueling the emotion of extreme nationalism, with that being a step toward self-asserted nativism and ultimately devolving into tribalism. He believes in patriotism and has served as a U.S. Marine (an admittedly short tenure), but he is deeply concerned that if we let rhetoric drive our culture to tribal conflict, our nation’s model experiment in democracy will be no more.

In that same concern of internal conflict, he worries that our nation has yet to come to terms with sufficient advances in race relations. He sees the ongoing suppression of minority voting as pernicious and systemically in need of our attention. This struggle dates back to our founding and seems likely to remain unresolved until the final page of our history is written.

Rather worries that our population doesn’t understand how close we are to the brink of war with North Korea, a human tragedy we will regret if we don’t navigate it properly. He sees China as the key to containing North Korea, because China largely controls the supply lines there. The emphasis of our negotiations is better served with China so that China has enhanced motivation to ease tensions with North Korea. We shouldn’t fool ourselves otherwise.

With regard to national priorities, Rather believes that “the three foremost issues in our agenda need to be education, education, and education.” There is no doubt in his mind that education is the core of an informed constituency, and without it democracy will collapse. Likewise he reminded us that “dissent is American” and to think otherwise is to misunderstand the foundations of our nation. Our nation was founded on dissent, and it is always our right to dissent. He chooses to stand for our national anthem, but he appreciates that other forms of peaceful expression remain valid and core to our principles of free speech.

In closing, Rather spoke eloquently of avoiding the trap of cynicism. He believes in skepticism, both as a reporter and consumer of news, but he emphasized that no good can come of cynicism. There is no value in the snide dismissal of hope. I was particularly heartened to hear him end by encouraging us to hold onto our idealism. To hear a career journalist who has stood in the trenches of war and seen close-up every form of violence our world has suffered end on a note of idealism reminded me why I loved his newscast. This was a journalist who at the height of his fame signed off at night with a single word: “Courage.”

Dan Rather is a reporter still on the job, a journalist forever unafraid to do the job that has been his life’s work. Courage and idealism have never mattered more in our world. He might not want to be called an elder statesman, but I know one when I see one.

Jerry’s Kids Forever

Labor Day weekend for me will always be connected to Jerry Lewis. His annual 21 ½ hour live telethon raised more than $2 billion over 45 years for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. He died last month at the age of 91. I miss him already.

Jerry meant a lot to me as a kid. I was an MDA volunteer from the age of 12. I used to help patients with mobility, assist with fundraising, and every year I would work the telethon in the local Honolulu studio. Satellite time in the 1970s was very expensive, so we didn’t get the national feed for most of the overnight hours. In those blackout periods our producers would put on a nonstop “telethon within a telethon” so we could stay on-air in synch with the east coast six hours ahead and the west coast three hours ahead. Pledges would come in all through the night. Jerry was with us in our hearts whether he was onstage in Vegas or we were broadcasting hula dancers. We did the show together no matter the separation of distance, and we loved the children at the heart of our mission.

I never met the man, but sometimes he would come on the non-broadcast feed between segments and talk to the remote volunteers, so I felt like I knew him. He would thank us for our help and tell us the telethon could not happen without us. I believe he truly loved the kids we served. He wanted to beat neuromuscular diseases in our lifetime. We haven’t done that yet, but we have come a long way. He gets credit for some of that, along with the dedicated doctors and visionary scientists whose groundbreaking work he helped fund. For a zany borscht belt comedian, that’s a long way to travel in a single visit to our planet.

Jerry took some heat for exploiting MDA patients in his depiction of their challenges. I never saw that. I saw a man devoted to curing a terrible, debilitating condition. He was a master of the stage, there is no question about that, but in the end I don’t believe the telethon was about him. It was about lending his name and global stardom to a cause that mattered. He didn’t have to do that. It was a choice. Of course it would come with some critique. He was pioneering new ground and taking creative risks that had no precedent. He might have said a few things wrong or missed the mark on occasion with a photo opportunity, but I believe he was committed to healing. He was a brave soul paving the way for a generation of viewers who learned how to turn their time into public service.

I learned a lot from Jerry and working with MDA. I learned how to work steadily through 36 hours of production from set-up to wrap. It’s hard to fathom what that meant in this age of digital media and 24-hour everything. Opportunities like that let you bond with strangers with enormous intensity that is over as quickly as it begins, yet can last a lifetime. Sometimes in the overnight hours, when I saw on the schedule board that our stage was about to go empty, I would gather some of the MDA kids and we would practice a few songs together, a Beatles tune or a Bob Dylan folk song. When the TV audience was at its smallest the producer would put us on the air. I played guitar and we would sing together in a half circle looking straight into the red light of the live camera.

The first time this happened was my first time on live TV. We were directly in front of the phone banks around 3:00 a.m. with maybe 100 people in the auditorium fighting sleepiness. I probably messed up some of the chords but the kids sang right over me. You forgot they were in wheelchairs. They were just kids singing like they were at a campfire. Afterward the kids asked me if Jerry would have been pleased with our performance. I took a chance and told them I thought he would. Today I know that for certain. They were Jerry’s Kids forever.

Jerry Lewis was an imperfect person as we all are, but he was an inspiration to me. He had no roadmap, no rule book, just a whole bunch of harebrained ideas and a ton of influence he put to work for something that mattered. He was dedicated, hard-working, wildly hard-minded about details, and a perfectionist. He gave of himself. He always made me laugh. Well, maybe not always, but most of the time. He was very funny, but of another time. I will never forget him. He was an original. Labor Day will always be his.

Jerry, dear Jerry, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

The Little We See

I discovered the NBC television series This Is Us in summer reruns this year and I have become obsessed with it. If you enjoyed shows like Thirtysomething and My So-Called Life, you’ll not only recognize the tone and structure in This Is Us, you’ll see familiar names pop up in the directing credits. It probably won’t surprise you that what has most attracted me to this show is the writing, both the quality of dialogue within episodes and the structural connections between episodes. Series creator Dan Fogelman has framed a milestone achievement in word-to-screen translation.

If you are a student of fiction you know that narrative has the highest emotional impact when story and character are revealed on equal footing, one reinforcing the other. Whether you attempt the craft professionally or as an avocation, you know how immensely difficult this is to do, particularly consistently. Characters matter more when the story advances as a result of their arcs. The depth of characters is more fully rendered when plot points drive their change. It’s enormously challenging. Try it sometime. Or you can just watch This Is Us.

I certainly don’t want to give away any spoilers surrounding this show in case you decide to binge on it after reading this post. At its core it is the story of three people born on the same day circa 1980 (the year I graduated from high school, go figure). The storyline follows them from infancy to adulthood with all of the many tangents in their lives around family, friends, loved ones lost and found, career highs and lows, and personal discoveries. The emotional complexity of the characters is what makes it powerful, yet surprise twists in their interwoven journeys jump out all the time, making it the kind of serial that leaves you both satisfied and wanting more.

What consistently blows my mind in this show is how character development is revealed in snippets that link forward and back in time, particularly replaying events with increased detail layered into the unveiling of previously hidden moments. It is these hidden moments that led me to write about the show. What continually strikes me as gripping drama is how little we know about any one character or event at any moment in time, and how adding onto the storyline sheds light on the “why” of every moment. I think about this in life every day as I encounter people, not so much in what I do see but in the stark reality of how little I see.

“The little we see” is the mystery of real-life human drama. Someone could be standing next to you in line at Starbucks with a thin smile, but she may have just come from the hospital visiting someone in critical condition. Someone could run into you on the freeway wildly distracted, when an hour ago he was turned down in his marriage proposal. The person next to you in a bar watching a baseball game might be ordering the beer that sends him tumbling off the wagon. We barely know what we see. We usually have little idea why it is happening, what meaning or consequence it may have, or what life fork in the road it may represent. Good storytelling fills in the blanks. Compounding life events don’t snap together as Lego blocks nearly that solidly.

Returning to my obsessions, in my early writing career when I was learning the craft and reading much more than I was writing, I found myself consumed with the question of what happens to characters when we don’t see them. I spent a lot of time immersed in stage-play texts and repeatedly asked myself purposefully unanswerable questions. What are these characters thinking and doing when they are offstage? What were they doing before the play began? What will they be doing after the final curtain? Certainly writers have to think about these things, but the time-limiting constraint that they never can fill in all the blanks is what can elevate a story from entertainment to a more lasting form of art. The elements of a character’s life that are left open-ended are the entry point where the reader’s imagination can come alive. It is in that synthesis that a work becomes both personalized and shared.

Why might this matter to you even if you aren’t particularly enamored with fiction? Perhaps you are like me and find yourself wondering throughout the day about the backstories and masked details in the lives of the people who walk into and out of your contact each day. When you are in a meeting and the presenter is struggling, what was he doing an hour ago, a day ago, a week ago, a year ago? When you hear a co-worker arguing on the phone in the hallway about something that sounds personal and know that you are about to review a business plan together, will that person be paying enough attention to make good decisions and what will happen to resolve the argument by the time you meet again tomorrow? When a co-worker’s child visits your office, what does she see and how will it possibly affect her future decisions about her career?

All of this fascinates me both as a writer and a businessperson, because the long and winding roads of our lives are filled with invisible forks where we choose a path and don’t necessarily know at the time that the decision was of immense consequence. I will be writing more about these invisible forks soon because I think the resonance of our decision-making becomes more consequential when we pay attention to the impact it has on those around us. We can never chart our own fate entirely, but we can think now and again about what might be going on offstage as well as onstage before we act.

One of the best pieces of advice my dad gave me in business was that unless you are in the room where a decision is made, you will never know why that decision was made. My trepidation has gone further, because too often I have been in that room and I still don’t know why many decisions are made. To me that signals what happened in the other room where I wasn’t present and didn’t even know there was a meeting, or what happened in someone’s living room that morning, or what might be happening in some hotel conference room that night. We see what we see and it’s never enough. We see too little, yet we still have to make decisions.

The little we see is a subset of any story. Think about it that way and you might make different choices when you are in the scene. Onstage or off, the story is part public, part private, part secret, part personal, and always conflicted. That is what makes a great television series like This Is Us. What it says about our lives and our business dealings is something else entirely.

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Photo: This Is Us Gallery, NBC.com