Gene Wilder

Mr. Funny Face, the great actor, comedian and writer Gene Wilder died today. The star of Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein (which he also wrote) and Silver Streak was 83 years old. And, though he is associated with a streak of absurdist comedy brought forth chiefly by his frequent creative partner Mel Brooks, a wonderful source of silliness grounded in seriousness has been lost.

GeneWilderinWorldsGreatestLover

Gene Wilder in ‘The World’s Greatest Lover’

The screenwriter Wilder supposedly took his name from writers, too, blending a character from Look Homeward, Angel and the name of an American playwright, which suggests his thoughtful nature. The literary tie-in was apparent throughout his remarkable career, which was remarkable for its many failures, which he constantly overcame.

Gene Wilder broke out at the peak of the counterculture in 1971’s weirdly brazen yet reassuring adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with Paramount’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, though he had made an impression in smaller roles, too, such as an innocent victim in Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Wilder played Wonka, of course, in the box office musical flop, one of many of his commercial failures that nevertheless influenced movies, ideas and culture. I think it was the first motion picture of his that I saw in a movie theater. I was transfixed, not by his weirdness, which forged a path for movie stars such as Johnny Depp.

I was captivated by his oddly severe benevolence. This unique quality, Wilder’s strange seriousness gilded with kindness, is his defining and most enduring screen persona. He displayed it, too, in his triumphant 1980 movie with director Sidney Poitier (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?) and another famous comedian, Stir Crazy. I don’t think I had ever laughed so hard in a movie as when I watched his pairing with the late comic genius Richard Pryor (and, oddly enough, that movie was my first experience of seeing a movie being filmed; it was at the Tucson, Arizona hotel where I was vacationing with my family).

Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor are Hollywood’s first interracial comedy duo. The hilarious pair made four movies together. A look, a squeal, a facial expression, a line, a gesture, everything they did was comic chemistry on screen as they mined an audience and story for wonder, laughter and satire in everything they did. Though it’s not perfect, 1976’s Silver Streak teamed the Pryor-Wilder pair again, this time with liberated woman Jill Clayburgh in one of the rare madcap comedy capers of the 1970s to successfully integrate drama, suspense and humor with something semi-serious at stake. I know that many remember Wilder best for his roles in two 1974 Mel Brooks movies, which I never cared for, though Wilder is brilliant in Young Frankenstein. I prefer his other movies.

Gene Wilder made me laugh in Start the Revolution Without Me (1970), The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975) and See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989) with Pryor, Wilder’s last movie I think I paid to see in a theater. Who can forget 1986’s silly Haunted Honeymoon with his then-wife, the late Gilda Radner, who preceded Wilder in death by ovarian cancer, and the late Dom DeLuise in drag? I think his best role was as innocent convict Skip in Stir Crazy, which still makes me laugh when I think about it. Gene Wilder went on to play in a television movie of Alice in Wonderland and his own TV series. He could play characters that were in turns biting, cruel and vapid. He was an amazing writer and actor of ability whose rubbery or stone face could fill a movie with enough humor to make it seem funnier than it was and, while it turns out that his legacy is to have been lampooning a world gone mad, Gene Wilder somehow managed to do it without sneering at the good.

His seriousness made it easier to take the silly less seriously. As Willy Wonka, his silliness made it easier to take goodness more seriously.

Gene Wilder is for this reason alone already sorely, deeply missed. He is survived by his friends, family and wife, Karen, and, I know, childlike people everywhere who cherish his depiction of a strange, kind industrialist who, with “pure imagination”, dramatized that it is possible to be good in a world going bad.

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Social Media and Writing Boot Camp

This week’s job skills workshop, covering writing the perfect resume and cover letter and mastering the job interview, will be held in the auditorium at Burbank Unified’s adult school campus near Bob Hope Airport at 10:00 am this Friday, August 26. I’m excited to teach this new class, which the director asked me to create to help people find rewarding work.

The theme of this 90-minute class is that looking for work in today’s market requires explicit assessment, awareness and positive assertion of one’s record, experience and philosophy of work.

MSOSM BPL anchored 8:22:2016

Social media workshop 8/16 | Burbank Public Library | Photo by Jeffrey Falk

Feedback from Monday’s workshop in social media, which I delivered in downtown Burbank, was constructive. One of my students suggested adding thematic detail to title slides, a good suggestion which I plan to incorporate, and I’m told that the LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter screenshots were helpful. Attendance at the Burbank Public Library-sponsored event exceeded my expectations and audience questions were sharp, serious and insightful.

This area north of Los Angeles is a diverse economic mix of artists, entrepreneurs, professionals and crew that represents the Southern California industrial blend of media, movies, technology, retail and manufacturing. I covered a wide scope of functions and editorial best practices in major social media and I was impressed by how attentive and knowledgeable today’s readers and communicators are about the nuances, details and complications of branding one’s presence on social media.

"Making Sense of Social Media" 8/22/2016 | Burbank Public Library

Social media workshop 8/16 | Burbank Public Library | Photo by Jeffrey Falk

I plan to add aspects of this class to this fall’s 10-week course on social media, which starts on September 12 (follow this fall’s All About Social Media on Facebook here). Space is limited, so if you’re in Southern California, sign up because the course is filling up. The new fall course includes live demonstrations and tutorials in social media. Computer laboratory instruction for each student’s social media profile(s) is an optional part of the fall program this semester, too, so expect to get individual attention with emphasis on how to improve what you’ve made or want to make. Look for updated lessons based on the newest trends, tools and failures, including experience from my projects, campaigns and branding. From Joss Whedon quitting Twitter after negative reviews for Tomorrowland to Brian Williams losing his stature and Robin Williams‘ daughter Zelda Williams reclaiming social media as her own domain, my course covers today’s terrain.

To register for All About Social Media go here.

This course is an editorial orientation. In other words, this is not a course on every detail or feature of Instagram, Twitter or YouTube. My approach instructs the student in how to engage social media based on one’s goals, values and self-interest while exploring certain uses, tools and functions.

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The same premise goes for my fall 2016 Writing Boot Camp, which breaks writing into progressive steps, from before writing begins to after completion of the first draft. Writing Boot Camp includes spot and assigned writing and notes. Course subjects include habits, resources and immersion in writing as an art and as a science.

Selecting the format, designating the topic and formulating a theme are studied and both writing and editing are practiced, both one on one as well as in collaboration with other students in class. Students are asked to read aloud. The 10-week series is based on what I have learned and fundamentally grounded in my professional writing background. I am enthusiastic about Writing Boot Camp. I plan to introduce the course’s first guest speaker, a published author of dozens of books, this coming fall, too.

Register for Writing Boot Camp here and follow the course on Facebook.

Who enrolls in an adult writing course? Poets, screenwriters, published authors and anyone seeking to achieve clarity in writing. Students are entertainment industry executives, songwriters, police officers, lawyers, teachers and entrepreneurs. Certain students attend for general knowledge and practice in a disciplined approach. Others seek to refuel the creative supply through my encouraging immersion in the art and business of storytelling.

Writing Boot Camp starts on September 15. Both courses are held at Burbank Adult School near Bob Hope Airport. However, if you’re unable to attend and you want help, I am available by appointment, video or telephone. Contact me for details.

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Music Review: Pat Benatar at the Greek

Stepping on stage with the knowing confidence she has exuded throughout her career, Pat Benatar took to the Greek Theatre with ease. She opened with her hit song, “All Fired Up”. This anthem is the ideal initiation to her summer performance of rock, ballads and blues. The tune captures the essence of Benatar’s best work.

Get the album

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Husband Neil Giraldo’s guitar roared before his wife let loose her vocal power in expressing the buoyantly, defiantly crying optimism which distinguishes this singer and her operatic rock band. Whether in the strong but tender “We Belong”, dramatic “Love is a Battlefield” or The Legend of Billie Jean‘s affirmation “Invincible”, each performed with precision last night at the Greek in her hometown Los Angeles, Benatar’s siren-like bellowing has aged with not a trace of cynicism. Each note, guitar solo and drumbeat fell neatly into each song with minor flaws, bringing her hard but positive catalog to life in the hills of Griffith Park.

Telling tales with humor, profanity and a grasp of what makes a good story, Giraldo and Benatar delivered with stage presence and musicianship every time. This isn’t a greatest hits collection, so they indulged in a selective set list after a nostalgic setup video. With “Hell is for Children” as an emotionally stirring transition point, they gave the enthused audience “Heartbreaker”, “We Live for Love” and “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” as well as a powerful version of “Promises in the Dark”, “Painted Desert” and a tribute to the late Prince with an acoustic rendition of his “When Doves Cry”. The energy was sustained, though Benatar seemed ready to call it a night when she did, too. Both artists, who were co-billed as Pat Benatar & Neil Giraldo with Melissa Etheridge, have a naturally seasoned audience rapport.

That they acknowledge the warped, divisive times fits the tour’s love theme, with Benatar introducing the rollicking and underrated “Let’s Stay Together” off 1988’s brilliant and underrated Wide Awake in Dreamland with a statement dismissing political differences while pleading for unity. A hint of resignation and the sense that answers to deep, serious problems aren’t coming doesn’t mar the band’s underlying, almost prayerful idealism. It is tinged with the rage and anger at injustice that made Pat Benatar an early New Wave sensation in the late 1970s. No one can best this artist and duo for melodic rock that drives its theme that peace and love must be won, fought for and earned. The wink and the shrug with which Pat Benatar and her Neil Giraldo perform are optional.

These two ought to write and record more new music. Their rock concert is a rare and entertaining blend of the light and the serious.

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Music Review: Melissa Etheridge at the Greek

Belting out her torchy 1990s hits and threading a story connecting her to hometown Los Angeles and its intimate Greek Theatre, where she preceded Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo, Melissa Etheridge displayed ability and an appreciation for the blues.

Teasing with a rousing cover tune of “Born Under a Bad Sign” from her forthcoming blues cover album of Stax Records songs, the best song performance of the night, singer-songwriter Etheridge impressed on a variety of skills. The raspy voice is deeper yet still strong and, without pandering to her gay female audience base, the outspoken political activism remains. Both are older and, yes, wiser and more restrained. This is the savvy artist who played on Mike Huckabee’s Fox News program, after all, and she says she still lives in the San Fernando Valley (and has an apartment in Manhattan with a view of the Freedom Tower), so she’s hardly the embodiment of left-wing intellectuals. As in the Brave and Crazy beginning of her career, Melissa Etheridge is an independent gay singer on her own.

While nodding to the times she hung out in Long Beach, a lesbian mecca like Minneapolis, Etheridge let her introspective songs of longing for sex, love and happiness—”Bring Me Some Water”, “If I Wanted To”, “I Want to Come Over”, “Angels Would Fall”, “I’m the Only One”, “Come to My Window”—speak for themselves. She tapped the early, granola-folk phase with her plaintive “No Souvenirs” and mastered every guitar she played throughout the night. But she also spoke of her struggling years in LA in chapters of coming to the Greek to see yoga-minded Sting, for whom she would open, and acts with gay male followings such as Liza Minnelli, who had invited the young Etheridge to attend her show, and Culture Club. She referred to the “glass ceiling” and hinted support for Hillary Clinton but she also derided people breaking off into “little groups” and called for Americans to come together.

Melissa_Etheridge_-_Never_Enough

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I’ve always liked Melissa Etheridge—I think Never Enough is a thoughtful album—for the same reasons I like Bob Seger; she’s a musical storyteller. I’ve bought her albums and I would have liked to have seen and heard her perform “Ain’t it Heavy”, “2001” “Christmas in America” and “The Letting Go”. Etheridge’s new song, “Pulse”, about the Orlando massacre of gay men by a Moslem terrorist is not her best. But it’s impossible to deny the cancer survivor’s talent and dedication to writing, playing guitar and singing about life here on earth. And, now, thanks to a terrific show last night at the Greek, I look forward to hearing her new Memphis-recorded blues album, too.

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Movie Review: Abortion: Stories Women Tell

A new 90-minute documentary about abortion, HBO’s Abortion: Stories Women Tell, demonstrates how endangered the right to abortion has become. This is not a compliment to the film, however, which plays it safe and doesn’t fundamentally inform or enlighten the audience about abortion. Granted, the title does not promise very much. But heartbreaking tales of why women choose to have an abortion, mixed with tales of women who choose to campaign and crusade against abortion, are just stories.

large_Abortion-poster-HBO-2106-1There’s no attempt to reconcile stories with facts, let alone evidence. Heck, there isn’t even an attempt to instruct the audience in what an abortion, a medical procedure which terminates the fetus, entails. Abortion is left to one’s imagination in Abortion, which is exactly what happens as bits and pieces of the procedure are referenced in disjointed fragments and, in one long diatribe, a fundamentalist Christian rails against abortion, incorrectly referring to the fetus as a “baby”, without any contrary argument. I think the filmmakers must think this is a “balanced” approach or that they mistake objectivity for refusing to take a position on anything including the facts of reality. Either that or they think the case for abortion needs no facts, which is not true. The effect is that the presumably pro-rights Abortion backfires and comes across as a movie which regards the anti-abortion and pro-rights positions as morally equivalent.

After some setup including the dubiously worded assertion that the 1973 Supreme Court decision to legalize abortion “gives” the right to women and a preface about an anti-abortion law in Missouri which drives women across the border to an abortion clinic in Illinois, the movie by director Tracy Droz Tragos sets the basic, familiar conflict. It’s the fundamentalist religious people versus the women seeking to have or provide abortion.

A documentary about women’s abortions can’t help but be moving and interesting, as lower middle, poor and middle class women report their various reasons, which are mostly financial. “I’m doing this for me,” one individual says. Another reports the HIV virus infection as a motive to abort. Someone else explains that her fetus is discovered to have a deformity which will leave it without a skull above the eyes. Several women report abusive fathers as the reason to abort. One woman says her worst decision was to have unprotected sex and adds that her best decision is to have an abortion.

That abortion is a woman’s fundamental right to control her own body is beyond dispute, but it’s never put that way in this rambling, unfocused film, which horrifyingly presents the anti-abortionist side without commentary or correction, leaving atrocious assertions left unchecked and uncorrected. One protester’s gruesome description goes on and on without the most elementary fact check. Worse, the abortion is left unexamined as a legitimate clinical procedure. The clinic’s guardians, escorts—religionists brand them “deathscorts”—and nurses and doctors are most forthright and compelling, with a mother who’s a security guard openly and with good reason expressing her thoughts on the anti-abortionists, who tell the patients and clinicians that they’re going to burn in hell and that sort of nonsense. “Let God plan parenthood,” reads another one’s t-shirt.

But these religious radicals are depicted without the slightest qualification, giving their irrational views undue credence.

When one woman finally talked about the abortion pill, I felt a sense of relief for her sake. This is because, as observed by Dr. Erin, as she’s known here in a common tactic to protect the identity of those who offer this service to patients for fear of terrorist attack and/or murder or assassination, the anti-abortionist conservatives have all but won the war against a woman’s right to abortion by thoroughly stigmatizing the procedure, leaving fewer places to get an abortion.

“People are going to die,” the doctor rightly warns, forecasting death due to de facto abortion bans—I know that fewer and fewer doctors are trained in the procedure, which I know no thanks to Abortion—and punitive laws. Abortion: Stories Women Tell lacks the narrative and thematic clarity and cohesion to let the women who choose and practice abortion tell their full stories—of marriages, fortunes and lives saved, Casey Anthony type mother-murderers averted and inalienable rights exercised—and it fails to show the truth of the right to abort a pregnancy. Worse, while the stories are involving for their seriousness, it leaves the impression that stories as such, including those told by religious fanatics, are a better measure of truth than medicine, facts and evidence.

The individual’s right to his or her own body is sacred. The exercise of this right deserves serious scrutiny and non-fictional filmmaking. Abortion regards storytelling as an end in itself and, in doing so, it sells the true story of—including a woman’s right to—abortion short.

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