David Milch Pens a Curtain Call

It’s called Life’s Work. It’s anything but a simple title, as only to be expected from its incomparable author, David Milch. It’s not so much a play on words as it is an enunciation of intent, a spiritual aspiration. Yeah, let’s start there and see where it takes us. The rabbi is in.

There is a profound sadness that winds its way through these pages. Alzheimer’s is laying claim to David’s current challenge, and it permeates his thought process in this troubling memoir. He is assisted in committing the recallable memories to paper by his family, and even where confusion follows his path like a sine curve, it’s not just Alzheimer’s that elicits sorrow. It’s the entire path of intermittent regrets. If words are to make us feel, his words again succeed.

I hadn’t seen David in a very long time when I attended his book launch. I asked him if he remembered me. “Of course,” he said, “do either of us owe the other money?” I was 99% sure it was a joke, but just in case I assured him we did not.

In the broadest sense of its definition, rabbi means teacher. In the workplace, it means more than that. If you get one, your life is going to change. You might just be finding a path to Life’s Work.

When you’re a young writer, if you’re smart you seek teachers. They don’t teach you how to write. They teach you how difficult it is to write. They instill in you taste, fortitude, inhuman patience, proper doubt, and resilience.

The feedback is anything but pleasant. It’s not for the faint of heart. You learn that bad first drafts are a fact of process. They are necessary, but largely need to be deleted.

David Milch taught me these things, mostly by demonstrating them, but sometimes from the breakfast lectern. He taught me that subjecting others to unpolished work was amateur, lazy, and unfair. If you choose to tell stories, you must learn to craft them in ways that don’t waste an audience’s time or take advantage of their goodwill.

You learn discipline, like an athlete. You do it every day, again and again. The rabbi keeps you honest. Character comes first, then reveals plot, but plot is only a device to enhance the arc of character development. We think we love story, but what we really love are characters.

David taught me those characters are guests in people’s homes. Audiences will let them in on expectation, but will only keep them there if they grow. When a show dies, it’s not because you have run out of story; it’s because the characters have no more headroom to interpret and flourish.

Feedback becomes lifeblood. Then one day you’re on your own. When the teacher is no more, your filter is established to shield you from embarrassment. The work must pass your own sniff test as it would be blessed from further refinement by the teacher.

In this memoir, David writes of the mind’s decay. He didn’t ask for this denouement, but his choices are few. He accepts the path as inescapable. He turns to notions of faith that evaded him in his younger years, when his temperament was not tamable. I remember that David. That was the rabbi who first said to me: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”

He wrote unforgettable, award-winning episodes of Hill Street Blues. He created the groundbreaking television series NYPD Blue and Deadwood. He left the craft of episodic television writing better than he found it. That is an understatement.

He battled substance abuse and gambling addiction, both almost crushing his existence. He raised a caring family and found his way back to their love. Surviving his demons to nurture love was a monumental achievement.

I came to David because my viewing experience of Hill Street Blues was TV that tore at the soul. I didn’t know that was possible, particularly because it broke for commercial every 12 minutes or so. David came to think of it as bourgeois. That’s a word you don’t often hear outside of college.

He wanted to go deeper, extract honesty from language despite the limitations imposed by presumed broadcast standards. Rules for David were goalposts that needed to be moved with concerted wit whenever a network executive forgot to interfere. All forms of writing are bound by some form of convention, but he wanted those boundaries to be in service to creativity, not obstacles to authentic expression.

He never stopped being a teacher. He saw the gift in his mentor, Robert Penn Warren, and paid it forward. He helped the careers of endless writers who learned from his example the poetic revelations in pure, gritty, messy, conflicted reality.

For many years I never believed I would achieve David’s standard. My aesthetic was too unformed, too quick to quip, too impatient to let a character breathe if it killed a laugh or shocking turn. I became despondent with my own attempts at composition. I worried words would fail me when I needed them most.

Yet I never gave up. The rabbi made that an untenable notion. Work was essential. Rewriting was essential. Craft was essential. I was on my own as David was. Every writer is alone. It takes a lifetime to learn that. The rabbi if abrupt saves you half your life denying this truth and readying you for being alone, determined, indefatigable.

A mentor is a subject matter master. A mentor is not meant to be kind in the present, only in the long arc of life. We learn this too late. The critique of the master is only meant to become self-critique in perpetuity. Like I said, apprenticeship is not for the faint of heart.

There is gravitas in the audacity of writing, absurdity in committing to an endeavor that consistently leaves you empty and unnaturally separates writer from the written. David understands that in a rabbinical sense. His ability to articulate the nature of output is simultaneously divine and existential. A brief, revealing excerpt early in the memoir captures the essence of that reduction:

There’s something about literature—poetry and prose, but particularly poetry—which disinfects the efforts of being. The effort itself is cleansing. It neutralizes what’s profane about the process, and just leaves the result.

If writing becomes your essence, the idea of not writing is about the same as the idea of not breathing. Neither is feasible. Both are equally necessary.

At the end of the reading, supplemented by famous friends sharing passages for reasons of pragmatism, David took the microphone. “Thank you so much for being here. I love you all. God bless you.”

I had never heard him say words like that. His arc had come with an unpredictable resolution. Story and character were again united in natural resonance.

The rabbi placed a small ribbon between chapters and closed the book. His eyes were clear and telling. Here ends the lesson.

_______________

Photo: The Author at Diesel Bookstore

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The Problem with Joker


I don’t write about movies often. On the occasions I do, it’s likely because something bothered me.

Joker really bothered me.

I can’t deny the performance of Joaquin Phoenix. He is a gifted actor. He gave a masterful depiction of a troubled, anguished, sick character.

That only makes my criticism more severe.

I’m also not going to argue against First Amendment expression. The creators have an inalienable right to make and distribute this work, for profit or otherwise.

That simply makes them guilty of intellectual laziness at best, and self-serving irresponsibility at worst. I think both have occurred, and I am deeply troubled by this because of the film’s enormous audience reach. Its success makes the laziness and irresponsibility all the more pernicious. They could have done better. They deliberately elected not to do so.

I’m going to tell you why I think this movie is psychologically problematic, but first, let me warn you, this will be one of the worst spoilers ever. Do not read a sentence further if you intend to see the movie and don’t want the ending ruined.

Okay, if you’ve seen it or don’t care to see it but want to know why I’m upset, please read on.

It is important to remember that the core source material for this literary work is a comic book. I read comic books a lot as a kid, and in fact I was about as big a fan of Batman as they come. That was in the escapist pages of a comic book.

The character portrayal in this onscreen depiction seems to me evolved from the school of naturalism, extending the realm of realism to a more interpretive form of social commentary. The extreme portrayal seems less a form of entertainment than it is a comment on cruelty and its origin. The clown makeup does not separate the storytelling from the gritty suffering in the streets. The imagery throughout could appear as hyperrealism, as Stanley Kubrick approached similar territory in A Clockwork Orange, but that would have required artistic choices that aren’t evident in Joker.

There can be obvious real-world consequences to confusing the worlds of fantasy and framing souped-up slice-of-life imagery as somehow predictive or inevitable.

The ending for me is what matters when an artist seeks to claim the high ground of unconventional storytelling, purposeful inclusion of uncomfortable scenarios, or violence that is meant to disturb us in order to reboot our thinking.

It is precisely the ending of Joker that is the biggest problem for me.

Even deeper than the ending is the punchline, which snaps into place so conveniently because the unmasked Arthur Fleck aspires to be a comedian. The irony in that kind of payoff could have been emotionally rich and telling. Instead, it’s simply exploitative because it’s enunciated as instructional.

Here’s the punchline: “You get what you f*ing deserve.”

I was almost okay with the movie until that line was uttered. That’s when I believe the writers, producers, and director abandoned moral ground and just went for accelerated shock value.

I guess it’s the writer in me that feels a churn in my stomach when fellow creatives let hope for commercial success undermine their better judgment. It’s not about political correctness. It’s about pride in authorship, embracing the seriousness of disciplined expression. There are consequences to our craft worthy of foresight.

It’s extraordinarily difficult to craft a satisfying ending to any story. The more outlandish the story, the more difficult it is to structure an acceptable conclusion. By acceptable I mean an ending that doesn’t waste an audience’s time and reflects the values of those who create it. No creative team wants to be embarrassed by an ending that ruins all that comes before it, but the true test of an ending is time. How we feel when we create something is one thing. How history treats it or how we feel about it decades after its creation are entirely different benchmarks.

My immediate sense is that there are at least two distinct, conscientious ways to think about resolving a work of popular fiction as the creatives involved start working toward an ending. There’s poetic justice and there’s existentialism.

If the intention is poetic justice, a wrong should be avenged. It should be made clear that evil will not triumph over good, and though any world is imperfect, the arc of our commonality ought to bend toward justice.

If the intention is existential—nature in its own social element—no moral summation is required; the world depicted is exact, unforgiving, and unapologetic. Yet here a storyteller with something to say may bravely suggest an observation of irony or social critique. The observed criminality may not be a tool pointing toward redemption, but it can be a window of material reflection.

Neither of these occurs in Joker, and that is where the bad is enshrined.

When late in the movie Arthur is invited on “The Murray Franklin Show,” he shoots his idol dead and utters the words: “You get what you f*ing deserve.”

It’s a carefully plotted moment and among the worst forms of premeditated murder imaginable, celebrated live on television before a presumably horrified viewing audience.

Sadly, that is just a setup use of the punchline. The truer horror is to follow.

A few minutes later, the wealthy Thomas Wayne and his wife are shot dead in the street by a rioting supporter of the savage clown. He echoes the same phrase: “You get what you f*cking deserve.”

Arthur uses his punchline to justify the act of homicide. That allows the stranger to justify his act of homicide.

This is an act of parroting. This is an act of emulation. In the story, both teaching and learning have occurred. Unfortunately, the lessons are abhorrent.

The moment the elder Waynes are slaughtered is without discussion or reflection specifically because it is integral to the larger epic of Batman. The child, Bruce Wayne, watches the brutal murder of his parents, which sets him on his life’s path to become The Dark Knight who will commit his adult life to avenging this wrong.

I’m sorry, I don’t buy it. That implied forward arc is not responsible storytelling. An act this vicious must be resolved in its own context or it is no more than isolated, exploitative horror.

Again, why am I so bothered?

Think of all the unconscionable violence around us. Think of the common occurrence of mass killings, of widespread gun violence too often triggered by mentally troubled individuals who have lost any sense of a moral compass.

Presume a tiny segment of the population watching this movie and these unnerving scenes are themselves abandoned victims of social cruelty. Might they see their own suffering in Arthur’s eyes? Might they also be in any way mentally disturbed as the film’s protagonist?

What message is this movie sending them? Is it a moment of necessary caution or claimed victory? Is it a moment of hesitancy or reinforcement of their unapplied curb on self-control?

What the hell is the purpose of this punchline beyond its catchy shock value? Was this two-beat mimicry necessary to secure the film’s blockbuster potential?

My answer is that the filmmakers could have done so much better if they’d wanted something better. They could have had their cake and eaten it. All they had to do was worry as much about the possible byproducts of the film’s success as achieving financial gain. It’s not that hard to care about what you’re saying directly or inadvertently. It just has to matter to those at the helm.

If you want to tell difficult stories, you work harder to create difficult endings. Don’t walk away from the problems you frame just because you can. You have the right, but doing it isn’t right.

Joker isn’t right.

_______________

Photo: Warner Bros Gallery

From Nothing: Reflections from the Road

One of the rare joys of being a writer is getting to talk about your work. One of the even rarer joys is getting to talk about the same work more than once because it is being published in a new format.

From Nothing, my third novel published by The Story Plant, allows me that joy with the paperback release on October 7, 2019.

It’s two generous bites of the apple, separated by over a year of contemplation, during which I got to hear from readers on how this story impacted their lives.

It’s a privilege to reflect on how I intended the troubled journey of Victor Selo to stir emotion, and how that was played back to me by my cherished readers. Perhaps an appropriate context for this is leaning on some of the lyrics I borrowed for inspiration and attempting to tie them back to many of the comments shared with me at readings, in reviews, and in letters sent my way.

Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream …

That’s The Beatles, and they are everywhere in this tale. Probably the first thing people discover about Victor is that he is anything but relaxed. Life events don’t afford him that luxury. Yet readers clearly made the connection between the invisible forks in the road chosen by Victor and the intense downstream consequences or results of their own unpredictable resolutions to unseeable moments of fate.

I found that I am not alone in boiling down my life to five or six key choices that I wasn’t necessarily aware were determinations of my ultimate twists and turns until decades after those quiet tests were unmasked. I have found great moments of connection in hearing readers see the fickle outcomes of their paths in the eyes of a character who is a stranger to their circumstances while a mirror for the task of connecting their own dots.

We are stardust, we are golden …

That’s Joni Mitchell, celebrated forever by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. It has been hard to escape this refrain with all the milestone anniversary hoopla around Woodstock, but readers seemed to understand that nostalgia wasn’t a theme I wanted to explore. My devotion is to the miraculous artistry of the songs that stay with us, the melodies and harmonies that become attached to the events we navigate and reconstitute themselves during the many decades we interpret their significance.

Readers have joyfully acknowledged that context and relevance become inescapable in the songs that become their favorites. Think about your favorite song the first time you heard it and what was happening in your life then. Now think about the same song a decade later, and a decade after that. The song hasn’t changed, but you have. If it remains a favorite, there is a reason. Our favorite songs blossom as our lives expand. We may even have to abandon a song for a while when our history associates it with pain. Yet we can always return to a song, and it can return to us. That is the majesty of composition and the alchemy of our interactions with vibrant creative matter.

Guess it’s better to say goodbye to you …

That’s Scandal, one of the less famous bands covered in the Vegas clubs where Victor crawls his way back to self-confidence. Early in my thinking about the arc of this tour, I knew I wanted to include references to the biggest acts of our time alongside some of the voices that had equal impact on me even with fewer hits. I’ve enjoyed the engagement from readers asking me why I excerpted one song and not another, and whether I planned a sequel to fill out the playlist. I don’ think a sequel is possible, and the chorus sung here by Patty Smyth is a good reason why.

It is humbling to know that readers turned these pages to find out what Victor might learn from the corporate monsters pounding on him, and from the many misfortunes he believed he had overcome but never actually escaped. When I listen to people tell me about the past events that are holding them in place, I wonder if part of the glue that holds us together is the evasive hope that we can let go, that we can move on, that we can start again. Whether it’s business, invention, or love, the past is an obstacle we all understand. It is all too easy to suggest to another that letting go and moving on is usually our best bet, but how often do we courageously take our own advice?

If you haven’t yet had a chance to read From Nothing, I hope some of these thoughts may inspire you. If you do have occasion to pick it up in any of its releases and have your own interpretations to share, I would enjoy learning from you.

This is the soundtrack of our lives.

Saving Our Language in the New Year

New Year’s Resolution #1: 

Stop beginning any spoken sentence with Candidly, Honestly, Quite Frankly, Truthfully, or To Tell You The Truth. Stagnant qualifiers pollute our language. If these preambles aren’t implicit, don’t speak.

I posted that mandate to myself on Facebook and Twitter in the final week of 2018. As much as I try to be vigilant about avoiding these sorts of speech patterns, I have fallen prey on too many occasions of late in allowing these bogus exclamations to slip into my vocabulary.

Without making any excuses, I will say it’s only natural to begin parroting the vernacular of the day. Over the past two years our airwaves have been filled unnaturally with overuse of such useless and cynical interjections. I don’t need to remind you of the bellowing source. You hear it as much as I do. You are inevitably aware of its repetitious origin. When bombastic authority misfires repeatedly, it becomes human nature to echo the poor refrain.

Curiously, my warning to myself was not only met with endorsement and cheer, but with further suggestions to all who share a love of our language. It seems that banal misuses and abuses of our language only begin with my singular new year’s resolution. I guess there are many of us who would like to speak more eloquently or less sloppily as we advance together in history.

Below I excerpt some of the comments shared on social media in response to my resolution, without specific name attribution to protect the privacy of the wise circle offering recommendations. Perhaps some of these will ring true as this post circulates and the collection will pick up further steam and participation. I believe as long as we are working against social devolution, there is hope yet our beloved language can endure erosion and deterioration that might otherwise undermine substance and meaning.

Here are some of those shared comments and suggestions:

Add to the list: “So…” I hate when people start a sentence that way.

Beginning a statement with “honestly” also conveys that it’s different from your other statements — which must be lies.

I’d add “believe me” as a sentential ending.

When I was a young lawyer — many, many years ago — I was told that when a witness started his/her answer with something like “to be honest with you…” he/she was about to lie.

Actually, in my opinion (humble or otherwise)…

Stop prefacing earnest speechifying with “Let’s be clear” or some variation thereof.

Stop ending letters and emails with “sincerely.” And why do we still start letters with “Dear…?” Come on, few people in this day and age deserve such acknowledgement, yet we use it for letters sent to strangers and corporations. Save it for friends and loved ones.

For God’s sake, don’t use “for God’s sake.” I doubt He/She cares.

“With all due respect” is a lead in that often means “I don’t respect your opinion at all, you moron.” And why do some people preface their own opinion with “some people feel that…?” Are they too afraid to own their opinion?

I’d like never again to hear “with all due respect.” It implies no respect is actually due.

Unless you started a statement with a joke, don’t begin a new statement with “In all seriousness…” And never state that “It’s common knowledge that…” Too many people use that to give support for their own narrow opinion.

Don’t say “literally.” Ugh.

And “respectfully.”

Don’t end a statement with a question, such as “…isn’t it?”

Don’t forget “needless to say,” the most pointless one of all. I’m trying to get rid of “Know that…” in my emails. When you’re done with this mission, tackle adjectives in general.

I once asked a question of some guest speaker at a very large public meeting starting a sentence with “surely.” He responded that he distrusts any question beginning that way because it sounds as if I had already made up my mind! My friends who were there quoted the line from Airplane: “Don’t call me Shirley.”

So, there you have it, literally some easy fixes for the new year. Honestly, we can’t fix the entire world, but quite frankly, any healing in our broken communication is worth the effort. With all due respect, it’s worth a try, isn’t it?

_______________

Image: Pixabay