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Ten Thoughts on the Eve of the 2020 Democratic National Convention

Posted by on Aug 17, 2020 in Blog, Essays, Politics, What's Left | 0 comments

 

2020 Democratic National Convention

 

Here are my thoughts on the eve of the (virtual) 2020 Democratic National Convention.

Ten bits of advice for speakers:

 

1. IDEAS: Make the convention a broad showcase for fresh ideas and celebration of America’s renewed hope. Stress positivity over negativity.

2. INCLUSION: Stress that the Democratic Party is (or should be) the big tent of inclusion, where Americans of virtually all beliefs are welcome and can freely express themselves. Hit on the fact that Republicans have litmus tests. Hammer home the idea that Democrats, while often disorganized and in disagreement, believe in compromise and working together as one. Yes, we are the party of progressives. But we also welcome moderates and even conservatives who are disillusioned by the horrors of the current regime.

3. THE FUTURE: Minimize and marginalize Donald Trump. He doesn’t deserve to be the focal point. While it’s impossible to ignore Trump as a factor, look forward, not backward. This convention is not about the past. It’s about the future.

4. MAKE THIS ABOUT THE WORKING CLASS: Talk straight to the working class. Speak to the desperation of struggling families sick and tired of fearing for their jobs and struggling to make ends meet, despite the so-called boom on Wall Street. Make this election about Main Street and the cul de sac and the apartment complex that’s raising the rent again. People are scared. Half the country is close to being bankrupt. Talk to THEM.

5. SCALE BACK DIVISIVENESS AND REPETITION #1: Black Lives Matter is an important cause, worth fighting for. But it’s not the only cause worth fighting for. Let’s keep this issue in perspective. Democrats will be squandering an opportunity if BLM becomes the centerpiece of the message. Political Fact 101: Pragmatism works. Rigid ideological lectures turn off (most) voters, especially undecideds.  [A comment sure to upset some people:  Yes, Kamala Harris is the first woman of color ever on a national presidential ticket.  That’s awesome!  But we don’t need 45 speakers to tell us this in every speech.  Let’s celebrate this historic occasion.  Let’s not play the same recording over and over again at the expense of other vital issues.

6. SCALE BACK DIVISIVENESS AND REPETITION #2: LGBTQ issues are an important cause, worth fighting for. But it’s not the only cause worth fighting for. Let’s keep this issue in perspective. Democrats will be squandering an opportunity if LGBTQ becomes another centerpiece of the message. Political Fact 101: Pragmatism works. Rigid ideological lectures turn off (most) voters, especially undecideds. Yes, I intentionally copied the text from #5. The point is — winning swing states isn’t going to come down to making a stand on transgender bathrooms. Let’s get real, people.

7. IT’S HOTTER THAN HELL, AND THERE’S A REASON:  August 2020 is turning out to perhaps be the hottest month ever recorded. Let’s spend more time on the issue of Man-Made Climate Change, which is very scary and very real. Every DNC speaker should at least mention this, as it’s the most important long-term issue we face collectively, as a nation and as a planet.

8. OPPORTUNITY: Make this election about OPPORTUNITY. Which party’s candidates provide the majority of Americans the greatest opportunity for safety, prosperity, and happiness? Trump has demolished each of these aspirations. Tell us what we can expect to be built in place of the shambles left by Trump and the Republicans.

9. STRAIGHT TALK: Talk straight and be honest with the American people. Whoever wins in November and which party controls the House and Senate are going to be left with a massive cleanup project that will take several years. There are no easy fixes. This is a time for real leadership, not faux-patriotism and phony flag-waving.

10. “WOW” US: Finally, make the speeches fun. Use humor. Entertain us. Make us laugh in jubilation and cry with joy at the aspiration of what we might be with a better government with good people running it. As a policy wonk, I usually prefer substance over style and details rather than generalization, but I’m not the target demographic. The struggling family in Toldeo, OH is the target. The single mother in a Phila. suburb is the target. The senior citizen in Florida fearful of what will happen to Social Security is the target.. Make it about THEM. This election and this convention, being mostly online and virtual, is very different. So, ADAPT. CHANGE with the times. Use the unusual occasion to our BENEFIT. Make us feel better and smarter and more hopeful after watching the convention. Speaking to the DNC, that’s entirely on YOU.

I’ll be watching, anticipating, and hoping.

__________

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No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (Documentary Film Review)

Posted by on Aug 11, 2020 in Blog, Essays | 0 comments

 

 

He was a receiver. 

He was possessed. 

He articulated what the rest of us wanted to say, but couldn’t say.

 

Writer’s Note:  No Direction Home:  Bob Dylan — (Duration — 3 hours, 28 mins) is currently available on Netflix.  Allow me to sum up the film-music-biopic documentary in one sentence:

 

Bob Dylan is nostalgia unless you were there and remember, or you know someone who was there and remembers, or you’re related to someone who was there and remembers that time and place before the matrimony of music and poetry and message and purpose that was changed by the lad born “Zimmerman” who appeared to be the most unlikely of poets and prophets, a lyricist not known for the quality of his voice nor revered for his ability to strum the guitar nor blow into a harmonica but who nonetheless shattered all the previous expectations and conventions of celebrity and superstardom and became the incarnate of an entire generation, the relectant recipient of a passed torch, and the shatterer of stereotypes — and all of this, and the man, and the music, and the backstory of how this perfect storm of a miracle in time happened is told in a sprawling nearly 3.5 hour long documentary stoked with rare footage, candid recollections, and (shocker!) arguably the most self-revealing interview ever done with Bob Dylan, who despite hundreds of prior interviews dating back to the start always seemed aloof and hostile to the responsibilties and pressures thrust upon him, who realizes this film might be his cinematic epitaph, a comprehensive collection of untold stories and set-the-record straight pronouncements on many of the singer-songwriter’s most memorable compositions which includes some of the most memorizing stage performances ever on recorded, some drowned out by hecklers, and the gaps in between of pensive introspection and outter expression of the shaggy sage who seemed not so much the origin as the conduit of a new sound, a new voice, a new expression, a new vision, a new aspiration, a new consciousness, a new conviction, a new idea, and new possibilities that music and words and idealoism mattered and were capble of greatness and had the power to end wars and cure racism and end poverty and bring awareness and heal and give hope to the helpless and that music and those words in his genre came not from grand orchestras nor amoed rock bands nor the roar of choirs nor techno wizardry but rather from solitude and the twangy strings of a weathered guitar and the pitch of a voice slightly out of tine and the look of a man who seemed frail and might otherwise be perceived as uncertain but who spoke and sang with the force of a sledgehammer, splintering all that was before and pounding the mantel of a new way of looking at things and thinking about things and doing things and all that’s expressed in this film, which must not be viewed as a look back but a vision forward as something sure to entertain, arouse, and inspire.

No Direction Home: Bob Dylan is an absolute must-see.  I recommend it highly.

Note:  Okay, so that’s three sentences.

 

__________

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Will You Trust a New COVID Vaccine?

Posted by on Aug 6, 2020 in Blog, Essays, Politics, What's Left | 1 comment

 

 

There’s a false assumption that a COVID vaccine is the cure to our problems.

Not so fast.

There’s growing concern that *if* and *when* a vaccine becomes available, it might not be as effective as we’re inclined to think.

What if a quarter of the population refuses to get vaccinated? Think that’s unrealistic? Read on.

A few points for discussion:

1. Trump’s recent pronouncements that he’s confident a new vaccine will be available “by the end of this year” are preposterous. Science (infections) doesn’t bow to political pressures nor is it concerned about the outcome of an election. The correct response to the question about a vaccine timeline from a non-scientific source and voice of authority (the President) should be, “it will be ready when we’re convinced it’s effective and it’s safe.” THAT should be the timeline.

2. Being wary of a new COVID vaccine isn’t the same as being anti-VAX, though there’s probably some crossover within this otherwise disparite demographic. Many of us who are strongly *pro-vax* also have (legitimate) concerns about a new drug that might be cutting corners during the research and trial phases.

3. I don’t trust anything that comes from this Administration. Not a word. Trump knows his re-election chances likely hinge on finding a “cure,” so all the stops have been pulled out on normal protocols. While a compelling case can be made that some short cuts do need to be made to get a vaccine out, based on the Trump Administration’s appalling track record of deflection, disastrous predictions, absurd statements, and misplaced priorities, I simply don’t trust the safety of a drug that’s been rushed to market.

4. Vaccine Origins: I am divided on the factor of the source of the prospective vaccine discovery. I would feel somewhat safer if the vaccine came from labs in Europe, where public/private cooperation has been in place for decades and there’s a long history of success. I am uncertain about the safety of a vaccine if it were discovered in China (certainly a possibility). China’s research capabilities rival our own and we better prepare ourselves for the possibility we could be forced to make some decisions. I’m also wary of a vaccine created by the US pharmaceutical industry, which is under enormous pressure from government (overseeing and financing) and is financially incentivized to cut corners to be first to get a drug to market to shaft the competition. I’d be very concerned if any pharma company that releases a vaccine is also given legal indemnification against damages (which I think is very possible).

5. The biggest fear as I understand it (and I am admittedly a layperson with no scientific knowledge) is a possible repeat of the Thalidomide disaster, when 60 years ago thousands of women mostly in the UK took a drug which later resulted in widespread birth defects. That might be an overreaction and fearmongering. But there is some chance that the recklessness of an untested medication rushed to market under intense political pressures could be problematic later on.

Curious to know the public sentiment on this question, I posted a poll on Twitter yesterday, which produced some interesting results. By about a 3:1 margin, most respondents stated they would agree to a vaccine. What this means is — 25 percent of the population say they will not get the vaccine (see my opening comments).

Note that I tinkered with this question just a bit by asking, what if the vaccine were released “this fall.” One presumes that if any vaccine were released under normal trial and testing the trust factor would be much higher.

 

__________

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Movie Review: Joker

Posted by on Aug 2, 2020 in Blog, Essays, Movie Reviews | 1 comment

 

 

My whole life people didn’t know I existed; now they’re starting to notice.

                                                                                                                          — Joker

 

I finally got around to seeing Joker last night.

My confessed tardiness to this pop cinema campfire was, and very much remains, boredom if not utter disinterest in any movie about a comic book character, a superhero, or a spaceship.  Batman, Superman, Spider-Man Iron Man….if “Marvel” is listed in the credits, I am — the invisible man.

But now, we’re stuck in the age of COVID, addicted to Netflix, and even curmudgeons like me are changing our stubborn habits, and besides — there’s more television to watch right now than any one person can possibly digest in ten lifetimes.

So, Joker appeared on my streaming feed, and finally, my curiosity slew the dragon of prejudice.  Oh, I should also mention — someone ponied up $150 for me actually write a review of the movie and post it on my website (true story).  “Will work for food” and even compromise my principles — if the price is right.

 

Meet Arthur Fleck

Joker is a movie about the transformation of a simple human being who’s trying his best to exist in an inhumane, impersonal, imperfect, poisonously pornographic unfair world.  It doesn’t just pull back the curtains on mental illness so much as rip them off the wall.  Behind the wrinkled cloth, we find a lonely and vulnerable man staring helplessly and hopelessly into the lens, a victim whose life has passed him by and now distant.  Finally, he reaches his breaking point.

We meet Arthur Fleck who lives in Gotham, a fictionalized rendition of New York City during a garbage strike, in 1981.  Our anti-hero resides in a seedy graffiti-plastered tenement building struggling to make a living as a party clown.  He does low-paying gigs all over town, from spinning “going out of business” signs on sidewalks to cheering up kids inside a cancer ward.  Fleck, the lovable loser, even with his glaring flaws, battered and broken by life, is largely sympathetic.  Gazing outside of smudgy windows on buses we see the reflection of an empty man capable of so much more.  Indeed, for those of us who have struggled mightily, at times — in careers, in love, and in life — we all have a little Arthur Fleck, a.k.a. Joker, inside us.  We all have our breaking point.

Fleck’s life takes one bad turn after another, through no fault of his own.  He’s robbed.  Beaten.  Humiliated.  Fired from his job.  While watching the vestiges of humanity slowly evaporate around him with every setback, I was reminded of another film, Falling Down (1993), starring Michael Douglas, a similar character portrayal of a seemingly “crazed killer” who is slowly prodded off the moral and ethical cliff not out of decisions he made, but rather because he is desperate and had no other place else to go.

When Fleck kills his first victim (actually three victims) in a random act of violence on a subway, we see him taking control for the first time.  Up until these murders, Fleck had always followed others — his mother, his boss, any authority.  He’d played by society’s rules, even though he had no voice in creating them, believed in the system, and it got him nowhere.  He’d been a pawn, about to be rooked and captured in a chess game he didn’t much know how to play.  After blasting multiple slugs into the torsos of three rich Wall Streeters who are on a drunken binge, Fleck manages to win a small victory.  It’s a fleeting moment of satisfaction, a tiny measure of justice, temporary glory in an inglorious existence.  He’s in control and the rush is intoxicating.

 

Introspection

“My whole life people didn’t know I existed; now they’re starting to notice,” he tells a social worker.

There’s some debate about the condition of the psyche, still unresolved apparently in academics, about naturing versus nurturing.  Joker makes a compelling argument that many criminals, killers, mass-murderers, even psychopaths aren’t so much born as they’re created by stormy surroundings and a cruel society.  They’re molded by forces outside the mind and the body — parents, co-workers, associates, friends, romantic partners, even the guy on the street we don’t know by name.  One day, one act at a time, slowly, like stones wearing down by the powerful forces of the waterfall, over time, we’re sculpted by those things which shape us, and ultimately make us who and what we are.

Joaquin Phoenix in the title role is every bit as riveting as the rave reviews he received from film critics and the Oscar for Best Actor he collected at the last edition of the Academy Awards.  Phoenix, his onscreen persona boosted by his quirky offscreen reputation as a nonconformist with an affection for the unconventional, seems not only at ease in the Joker’s skin; he’s made the character all his own.

“They don’t give a shit about people like you, Arthur,” the social worker replies.  “And frankly, they don’t give a shit about me, either.”

He snaps.

 

The Point of No Return

Predictably, Joker is a dark and sometimes troubling film to watch, though it’s also an illumination of shadows we often chose to ignore.  It’s exfoliation in an art form of the phony veneer that separates not so much rich versus poor but, those who flourish within a chaotic psychological dystopia at the expense of all its victims and outcasts.

Out of work, impoverished, and desperate, Fleck (Joker) tries to perform stand-up comedy in a small nightclub.  Although he’s done his homework and the effort is sincere, he’s terrible.  Plagued by a rare mental affliction that triggers uncontrollable laughter during inappropriate moments, Fleck is a walking, breaking, ticking time bomb.  Reminiscent of yet another film, Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982) — which stars Robert De Niro, who in this film plays a Johnny Carson-like role — Joker slides deeper into the crevasse of no return and ultimately goes beyond reactionary to premeditation.  I’ll be vague on this point so as not to spoil the ending for those who haven’t seen it.  However, for those who remember De Niro’s role as Rupert Pipkin, a lunatic loner obsessed with a talk show host, the parallels will be obvious.

Unfortunately, the script and the story take an annoying detour, which largely evaporates the audience’s goodwill.  Although he’s become a murderous clown, we’re so caught up in his condition, that we’re rooting for some consolation.  We don’t know exactly what we want — for the Joker to be caught or killed or perhaps continue on killing bad people who deserve to die.  So, we watch and wait, anticipating some conscientious resolution.

The unnecessary departure detracts from a fascinating meltdown when Fleck thinks he’s the illegitimate son of a rich power baron who refuses to acknowledge the long-lost relationship with his mother.  Again, without revealing more that might spoil the movie, the final scenes with acts of graphic violence seem gratuitous.  And pointless.

The first half of this movie sets up a fascinating premise, then the final half fails to deliver.

 

Grade:  5 on a 10 Scale

The shift to a more serious character-driven psychological thriller by Todd Phillips, best known for directing the comedy trilogy, Hangover, seemed like a natural progression.  The core of a great film was here.  But Phillips’ script (co-written with Scott Silver) gradually loses steam and becomes a one-man showcase for the thespian talents of Phoenix, and little more.

Joker has ephemeral moments of greatness, but not enough of them to overcome an aimless plot.  Phoenix’s best moments are not as the crazed Joker on various killing sprees, but rather the vulnerable void of a man with a blank stare, looking nowhere in particular, desperately seeking something to latch onto which will give meaning to his life.

I too, wanted this film to have some greater meaning, and although I was transfixed for moments, as the final credits rolled to the swansong of Frank Sinatra’s baritone version of the Stephen Sondheim classic, “Send in the Clowns,” I was disappointed there wasn’t more depth to this shallow portrait.

Joker is a film I cannot recommend.

 

Final Thoughts

My takeaways are:

  1.  Joaquin Phoenix can carry any movie, even with a weak script.
  2.  I remain correct in my negative assessment of movies made about comic book characters.
  3.  I just made $150.

 

__________

 

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My Position on the Kneeling Versus Standing During the National Anthem

Posted by on Aug 2, 2020 in Blog, Essays | 0 comments

 

 

Pro sports are back and the debate about kneeling versus standing during the playing of the National Anthem has returned front and center.

I don’t claim to speak for all leftists/liberals, but my position is probably shared by a large number of Americans, perhaps even a majority.

Here’s my opinion:

#1 — If a player chooses to KNEEL during the National Anthem, I respect that decision.

#2 — If a player chooses to STAND during the National Anthem, I respect that decision.

There. See how easy that was?

It’s called freedom of choice. It’s called the right to self-expression. It’s called civil disagreement. It’s called having mutual respect for one another, despite our differences.

This shouldn’t be a difficult concept to grasp.

__________

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Let’s Flood the Zone With the Truth

Posted by on Jul 29, 2020 in Blog, Essays, Politics, What's Left | 1 comment

 

 

“FLOOD THE ZONE WITH SHIT”

That quote, coming directly from the mouth of the man many consider the architect of the political virus known as “Trumpism,” former White House advisor and political strategist Steve Bannon. sums up much of what we see, read, and hear on social media.

“The real opposition is the (mainstream) media,” he said when asked about the Right’s unconventional political tactics. “And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.”

The tactic is nefarious — and brilliant, at least in a cold-hearted Machiavellian sense. It’s right out of the old Lee Atwater, Karl Rove dirty deeds done cheap playbook. First — create utter carnage and confusion, and then — provide clarity and an oversimplified solution.

The tactic is impossible to defend because it takes so much time for truthseekers and those genuinely dedicated to truth to expose, research, write, and try to counter-persuade those sadly gullible deplorables so tethered to trigger mechanisms (the flag, god, veterans, guns) that they’ll swallow any line of bullshit off the Breitbart and FOX assembly line, not to mention the troll sites littered with cockeyed conspiracy theories that number in the hundreds.

Flood the zone with shit.

It doesn’t matter most — if not ALL — of their “shit” consists of lies, exaggerations, and quotes taken wildly out of context to make their perceived “enemies” look bad. Truth has become irrelevant. It’s about destruction. Obama is a Muslim. Trump is Cyrus the Great. They want to destroy America. You’ve read the crap, and perhaps even shared it.

Fling so much shit we can’t beath.

That’s what we see here on social media, all the time. Memes, mostly unattributed (perhaps manufactured on some troll farm). Clever video clips showing violence with scary voiceovers, intended to frighten simpletons. OAN-style patriot news, that borders on self-parody.

Flood the zone with shit.

That’s what the Trump campaign, Right-wing douchebag media, Alex Jones, Rush Limbaugh, and the brigade of chickenhawk foot soldiers in the army of the 92 IQ company are going — 24/7.

They are flooding the zone with shit.

I recommend using this phrase often, and tagging posts you see from Trumpsters. Call them out. Let them know they aren’t fooling those who take the time to consume information from reliable sources, and filter out idiocy. Make their dirt backfire. Make them smell. Make them stink. And, if necessary, block them.

Flooding the zone with shit requires a mass cleanup.

Now.

Because, in the next few months, lies will spread faster than COVID. They are desperate. They will do anything and say anything. We all need to do our part.

Let’s flood the zone — with the truth.

__________

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A Non-Partisan Observation on Congressional Hearings

Posted by on Jul 28, 2020 in Blog, Essays, Politics | 3 comments

 

 

While watching the Barr hearings this morning (he’s testifying before a congressional subcommittee), my main takeaway is the utter failure of the parliamentary process. It’s a system that frankly — stinks. It’s broken.

I’ll skip the blame game and the castigation of congresspeople by name, which sadly make themselves such inviting targets of our collective derision. We all see and hear what we want through our tinted lens and filter, though I’ve come to a general consensus that both sides of the aisle, Republicans, and Democrats, often display an appalling lack of self-awareness.

The real culprit here is THE PROCESS. It’s counterproductive to the stated purpose of the congress (and senate, which is equally guilty), which is to carefully examine, research, listen, learn, debate, and vote — hopefully impartially with open minds.

As we’ve seen in so many previous hearings, the “witness” (in this case, Barr) makes his opening statement. Then, over the next several hours, committee members play a mind-numbing tennis match of back and forth “gotcha-isms.” Democrats point fingers and blame the witness, often not allowing him sufficient time to answer. Republicans shout, fling baseless accusations at parties not present, and flood the zone with distractions and counter-conspiracies. Each congressperson gets FIVE minutes to cross-examine the witness. The ridiculousness of the exhibition is amplified by the hearings being nationally televised, not to mention carved up and sound bit by extremist media, which will whitewash the dopey elephant. In other words, the committee members know they have just five minutes to put on a *show.*

This procedure would be laughable if it were not so painful to watch and hear. The witness isn’t really grilled, at all. He has the advantage of running out the clock with long-winded stonewalling, general professions of faux commitment to truth and the legal system, and (certainly in Barr’s case) disprovable lies.

Some percentage of those who ask questions have NO BUSINESS conducting a cross-examination. An even larger percentage (in my opinion) turn off the viewing public with irrelevant goose-chases and pandering. Many of the five-minute Q/A segments serve no purpose at all, other than to destroy earnest compromise and non-partisan pursuits.

I’m uncertain as to what changes need to be made in hearings of this nature. Perhaps we can look to and learn from the quite well-functioning parliamentary systems in Europe and other countries, where multiple parties somehow work together (mostly) without the political circus. I know that’s such a foreign, un-American concept — to learn from other countries and systems. Excuse me for making such a ridiculous proposal in the grand land of jingoism. American “exceptionalism,” for all the wrong reasons.

What I do know is — NOTHING will come from these hearings aside from each of us bole-weeviling ourselves deeper into silos of alternative universe echo chambers. Rather than blame the individuals who serve, as much as they do deserve blame, it is THE PROCESS, the horrific, counterproductive, absurd, divisive system that is guilty.

The system is to blame. It’s sick. And perhaps — terminal.

__________

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If Your Took This Clown Seriously, Please — DELETE YOUR ACCOUNT

Posted by on Jul 15, 2020 in Blog, Essays, Politics, What's Left | 0 comments

 

 

Anyone who made a fool of themselves and took the “presidential campaign” seriously of a confused rapper with the mental capacity if a kumquat deserves to be shamed and shunned. You’ve all become laughingstocks.

Hang your heads. In shame.

Celebrities pulling PR stunts: Just fucking stop. Please.

As if the current sad state politics wasn’t depressing enough, the amount of mass coverage given to a discombobulated moron who once called slavery “a choice” is an appalling indictment of our media. It’s a guilty verdict on the crazed insanity of social media (including some of you reading this) which collectively speculated on how much the rapper might impact the 2020 presidential election. If you tweeted or reposted anything related to this subject, do us all a favor:

DELETE YOUR ACCOUNT NOW.

I’m not using the great pretender’s name because he doesn’t deserve any free publicity.

There was NO FUCKING WAY this moron was going to get on the ballot as a presidential contender. Did ANY of you take a course in government or political science? Have you ever read a newspaper? You do realize getting on the ballot in every state at this late stage of the campaign and election would require MASSIVE amounts of money, staff, and volunteers. States don’t just list anyone who wants to run for president, even hip-hoppers. There are requirements and rules that must be met. Did anyone seriously think Trump’s red-hatted Uncle Tom was going to blow millions of dollars and try hopelessly to raise money in order to attract, what, 1 or 2 percent of the idiot vote?

Seriously, shame on you for buying into the ruse. Your gullibility is exposed.

There’s a lesson here, and I hope some might learn it. Quit feeding the beast.  Stop swallowing the latest social media trend topic. It’s tomorrow’s dirty diaper. It smells nice and fresh now, but in a day or so, it will be full of shit.

I feel dirty just for writing about this subject.

Rant over.

__________

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An Evening with Al Pacino

Posted by on Apr 25, 2020 in Blog, Essays, Las Vegas, Music and Concert Reviews, Personal | 0 comments

 

al-pacino-thumb

 

Writer’s Note:  Back in January 2017, I penned this article after seeing Al Pacino interviewed onstage in a two-hour career retrospective.  I’m publishing it here for the first time on the occasion of Pacino’s 80th birthday — April 25, 2020.

 

Few can command a room just by being inside it.  Al Pacino is such a man, with an undeniable command presence.

That was my instant takeaway the moment when the spotlight hit the iconic film actor who was introduced to a Saturday night crowd of about 800 loyal fans at the Opaline Theatre inside the Palazzo.

Pacino had arrived in Las Vegas for an exclusive one-hight-only, one-man engagement.  Think Pacino unplugged.  Aside from the somewhat nameless and faceless interviewer who tossed Pacino plenty of softballs to smash out of the theatre, this was Pacino totally in the raw, mostly unrehearsed and unscripted.  While some of the questions asked were repetitive and maybe even a few of the answers were orchestrated for maximum impact, the intimate setting was also loaded with plenty of spontaneous moments and edge-of-your-seat recollections for classic movie lovers.  Most satisfying of all, Pacino seemed to sincerely enjoy the trip down memory lane, with pit-stops where you’d expect them on his 50-year-career.  He was a much better storyteller than one might have anticipated.

Indeed, Pacino personifies what it means to be a movie star.  He made the Godfather’s fictional character Michael Corleone into someone who’s real to millions, forever embalmed into cinema’s collective consciousness.  When we hear Serpico, we think of Pacino.  Sonny, the bisexual bank robber based on a real incident, is Pacino.  Scarface.  Dick Tracy.  Frank Slade.  Carlito.  Lefty Ruggiero.  Shylock.  Richard III.  Phil Spector.  He even played Dr. Kevorkian.

I was surprised by my own reaction, that Pacino’s best moments weren’t the highlights of his superstardom, but rather the low moments and the struggles, both personally and career-wise.  We can forgive but he can’t forget, and Pacino carries the burdens of pain from his childhood, though no amount of talking about his early life could quite remove the lingering sting of loss all these years later.

He talked about growing up in East Harlem (and later the Bronx), born into a lower-class household, raised by a single mother at a time when single mothers were widely viewed social outcasts, especially in Italian-American culture..  Pacino’s father abandoned the family when Al was 2.  Interesting factoid from the show:  Pacino was mostly raised by his grandparents who were immigrants from….Corleone, Italy.

Pacino seemed the most unlikely heir of what was to become his ultimate destiny.  He worked as a messenger, busboy, janitor, and postal clerk in between acting jobs consisting mostly of small roles in stage productions.  There was even a period when he was unemployed and homeless.  Sometimes he slept on the street, in theaters, or at a friend’s house.

In the 1960s, leading men cast in movies did not look and talk like Pacino.  Smallish.  Way too New York.  And way, way too ethnic.  By age 30, even though he’d studied at the famed Actors Studio under the tutelage of mentor Lee Strasberg (who would later play the legendary role of Hyman Roth in Godfather II),  his acting career was going nowhere.

However, everything was about to change, including public tastes and mass audiences’ demands for authenticity combined with Hollywood’s own methods of casting prompted by a new age of writers and directors.  New movies would need smallish actors, with New York accents, who were genuinely ethnic.

Pacino’s role, playing a heroin addict in his first film The Panic in Needle Park (1971) caught the attention of movie director Francis Ford Coppola, who had just won an Oscar for screenwriting Best Picture winner, Patton.  Coppola took a big risk and cast Pacino as Michael Corleone in what became a blockbuster film, The Godfather (1972).  Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, and even Robert De Niro tried out for the part, but Coppola insisted on Pacino, to the dismay of studio executives who wanted someone better known.

The stories of phone calls between Pacino and Coppola during the tense negotiations were told here, presumably, versions heard by the public for the first time.  Neither knew of the monumental tidal wave that was to come engulfing both of their lives, totally reshaping the careers of both men.  Now, Pacino remained every bit as appreciative of that loyalty, noting that no other film director would have gone to bat with such steely determination, especially given that Coppola was also relatively young and didn’t have total control of casting decisions.

As one would expect, there wasn’t nearly enough time to tell all the stories.  Even Pacino’s most obscure film roles elicited some hysterical recollections about on-the-set disasters and even the actor’s own missteps.

Pacino had clearly done this before, and his experience as an amiable storyteller showed onstage.  Yet, the actor’s occasional gaffes were among the most endearing moments.  When absorbed in stories, he’d often get excited and would sometimes even ramble off on tangents.  A few times, the moderator had to steer Pacino back on track.  This wasn’t annoying at all.  It gave the presentation a genuine sense of spontaneity, that we were privileged to be sitting in an audience sharing Pacino’s recollections of what happened when the cameras weren’t rolling.  I should add that not having any film clips, props, or other supporting materials actually helped the format.  Midway into the retrospective, everyone in the audience seemed to feel what a special moment this was and we were lucky to share it.

Las Vegas might be known for gambling, but it usually leaves nothing to chance.  The odds are known.  Most shows are the same, night after night, year after year.  Pacino’s recollections, though imperfect and incomplete, was in a sense the acrobat performing without the net — no notes and no script.  While other celebrities have done one-person stage shows, with mixed results, most of those efforts look way too contrived, even manipulative.  Not so, with Pacino.

Pacino has crafted a reputation based on playing tough guys in movies.  But his first love is stage acting and theatre.  After taking about 25 minutes of questions from the audience (most of which were terrible — thankfully, Pacino was gracious and answered questions he’s undoubtedly been asked hundreds of times and anyone with access to IMDB can lookup), the legend paid homage to Oscar Wilde, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neil, and Noel Coward.  It seemed Pacino wanted to talk more about stagecraft.  Unfortunately, the interviewer cut off some of the evening’s most passionate thoughts from Pacino.

The final few minutes included a short glimpse of what was then Pacino’s next major upcoming film project.  That night, he’d recently signed a deal to play Jimmy Hoffa in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman.

Was it enough?  Was it worth paying $80 to listen to a film icon talk about his life and career?  Was this a show to recommend?

The answer is simple.  Hey, it was Al Pacino.

Enough said.

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Please, Let’s Not Forget Street Animals

Posted by on Apr 17, 2020 in Blog, Essays | 0 comments

 

 

LET’S NOT FORGET THEM

So many are in need…and needs are not being met…and the need for kindness and giving will only become more critical in the weeks and months ahead.

One of the sad consequences of the lockdown has been on not being able to do as much volunteer work for animals in need, which means those animals are even more desperate for loving homes.

It also means even worse suffering for stray animals on the streets.

Don’t worry. This isn’t one of those television commercials with the faces of sad dogs and cats who do very much need our help.

Rather, this is a plea to put some food out. Yes, place some food out or maybe leave a water bowl in your yard if you’re in an area with stray animals. They aren’t getting as much attention now with people locked inside their homes, and they could use a meal or a drink. If you think it’s a small thing, yes it is a small thing. But when you’re hungry or thirsty, no meal or bowl of water is small.

I’ve read some troubling news about street dogs and feral cats that are really in trouble. Each one of us can do something by giving food to an animal, tossing seeds to ducks, or feeding crows. They rely on the kindness of humans, so let’s be humane and help them.

Message: Please feed street animals. Keep out a water bowl. It is a crisis situation for them as well. Help them survive this phase. This too shall pass. We are in this together. All species.

Thank you.

If one person sees this and feeds a hungry animal, my day’s work is done.

__________

 

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