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Happy Birthday, Elvis

Elvis_(1979_film)For Elvis Presley’s birthday, I’ve reviewed ABC’s outstanding 1979 telefilm, Elvis (click on image to buy the DVD). Read the review here. Whatever one thinks of Elvis Presley and rock-n-roll, this is an exceptional movie.

Olivia Newton-John to Release New 2-Disc Live in Las Vegas

ONJ_LiveInLasVegas_webLook for a new, live album from Olivia Newton-John sooner than later.

The singer and actress recently announced that she’s making a two-disc album based on her first headline residency in Las Vegas, which premiered last spring (read my review here). The live album, Summer Nights: Live in Las Vegas and pictured here, will presumably include songs from her set list for the Flamingo Las Vegas show. This means it’s essentially a greatest hits live album, though a track listing has not yet been disclosed.

Olivia recorded an extended play record last year, Hotel Sessions, with her nephew, Brett Goldsmith, which I discussed with Brett in an exclusive interview. Previously, her last new recording to go on sale was This Christmas with John Travolta (read my review here) in 2012.

A Tale of Two Unarmed Americans

The death of Michael Brown sparked riots. The death of Miriam Carey (read about it here) did not. The difference is indicative of the disunited state of the union.

The disunity is not based primarily on race, as both Carey and Brown, not to discount the recent death of Eric Garner, were unarmed black Americans who died at the hands of police and many of the protestors objecting to judicial outcomes are white. The difference is not based on whether to judge based on facts or jump to conclusions based on emotionalism, though there’s apparently more of the latter, fueled by the cult of today’s fragmentary, momentary, whim-based media culture. A recent Fox News Special Report panel, for instance, comprised of leftist and conservative intellectuals, denounced a recent grand jury decision against a white policeman based purely on pictures, not facts.

No, what accounts for the difference between the public’s fixation on one unarmed American being gunned down by police and the public’s apathy toward another unarmed American being gunned down by police is the refusal or choice to think. When Ms. Carey, an unarmed black mother whose life was extinguished by police apparently without cause, was killed by cops, complete with media coverage and plenty of pictures and audio, practically no one noticed, questioned or scrutinized the shooting death. This despite the legal case by Ms. Carey’s family, who are suing the government for essentially murdering Miriam Carey after she became lost and made a U-turn (read about the case and her autopsy here). Who is Miriam Carey? No one asked.

MiriamCareyRIPWhy? Perhaps because, as America becomes a police state, ruled by the TSA and NSA, led by politicians in Washington, DC (which I first noticed during a visit in 2003 and wrote about here), the American people want to be ruled, to be controlled, to live under dictates such as ObamaCare, so they have no reason to question when a single mother who becomes lost is gunned down in the streets on live television like a scene from The Hunger Games. Is there zero interest in the identity, life and death of Miriam Carey because she died at the hands of those protecting the nerve center of the nascent police state Americans so desperately seek to live under?

From the drugs in his system and an apparent criminal assault and robbery to his parent urging people at what had once been a peaceful protest to burn the town to the ground, which is what subsequently happened, the public knows much more about the late Michael Brown. Whatever the merits of the judicial decisions, the public has reason to believe Brown was acting against the law while the public has reason to doubt whether Carey was acting against the law (despite initial reports). If Brown was a criminal and Carey was not – to say nothing of Eric Garner’s illegal actions, which prompted local businesses to call police and have him arrested – the dichotomy mirrors the nation’s disunity.

That an unarmed American being gunned down by police without cause in the name of protecting the president barely registers while an unarmed American being gunned down by police with at least partial cause in the name of protecting property and public safety incites riot says a lot about Americans’ hierarchy of values. Miriam Carey’s life was extinguished after she made a U-turn and fled from an unprovoked assault upon being unknowingly presumed guilty of intent to harm the president. Michael Brown’s life was extinguished after, by everyone’s admission, he assaulted a police officer. Does the fact that the former led to silence while the latter led to destruction reflect a society that holds contempt for life, liberty, private property and the selfish pursuit of happiness?

Time will tell. But two unarmed black Americans were shot in the head by police – one in a small, Midwestern town by a single cop and one in the nation’s capital by an army of police – and both died. One death led to an inquiry before a grand jury and elicited outrage, rejection and a riot and one death went unnoticed and untried and elicited silence, sanction and consent. I think it’s clear whose death is cause for concern about justice.

There are legitimate questions about the role of the police, who must be held to the highest possible standard for use of force in a free society, and questions must be asked and answered. They were regarding the death of Michael Brown – they were, too, over the death of Eric Garner – and the results were adjudicated. In the case of Miriam Carey, who was killed in front of her child with neither trial nor public doubt, question or protest, they were not. The disparity in the American people’s response – outrage versus consent – underscores the urgency of the ominous threat to individual rights.

Remembering Mike Nichols

afi_lifetime_achievement_award_mike_nichols_main-1The death of director Mike Nichols signals the end of an era. Throughout his career, Nichols was a rigorous intellectual in pursuit of serious artistic endeavors. He was the opposite of today’s vacant purveyors of cynical, vulgar fare; Mike Nichols had something to say, show and tell. From 1967’s picture about disillusioned youth, The Graduate, starring Dustin Hoffman, to 2007’s picture about disillusioned adults, Charlie Wilson’s War, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Nichols, who died in Manhattan at 83 this week, groped for stories about sifting through the mixed and muddled world of the 20th century and finding some kind of higher meaning, often and, at his best, elevating the good. Even his darkest fare, such as the pretentious Closer (2004), mined the world for meaning.

The German-born son of a Jewish doctor who fled Nazi Germany and a “miserable and manipulative” mother (upon whom he based his early comedy routines with partner Elaine May) captured in his work the evolving American ethos from goodness to self-doubt and eventual self-loathing. He did it with a particularly searching sense of humor (with a blue streak) that exists to examine and explore, not for the sake of the joke, but for the sake of the thought that accompanies, yields and evokes the laughter.

What the New York Times calls his “keen comic timing” comes from the genius of his early observations bred by intense alienation and social anxiety he may have experienced after a doctor’s error that left him hairless (he wore wigs). According to a bio on Turner Classic Movies (TCM), Nichols was inspired to become a director upon watching the stage work of Elia Kazan when Nichols was 16 years old. The New Yorker found himself fitting in for the first time in his life and identifying his own talent and ability, in America’s quintessentially melting pot, middle class city, Chicago, where he later said he discovered that he could be “happy and neurotic.” That’s where he first connected with his creative partner, the sharp, sardonic Jewish comedienne Elaine May. Their work set the standard for mid-century American comedy and Nichols went on to drop out of college, appear with May on television programs in comedy routines, and direct Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park (1963), originally titled “Nobody Loves Me”, with a then-unknown actor from the San Fernando Valley, Robert Redford. After gaining acclaim for directing on Broadway, he directed his first motion picture in 1966, an adaptation of Edward Albee’s foul-mouthed Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

Nichols, who struggled with depression and once considered suicide, went on a year later to direct the seminal film of the counterculture, The Graduate, which is heralded by the New Left though it ends with an affirmation of middle class values amid a distinctive score by Paul Simon. It became the biggest moneymaker of Mike Nichols’ career. His next hit came in the decade which briefly deviated from New Left dominance, the 1980s, in which Nichols depicted another lonely individual’s struggle against the dominant culture, Silkwood, starring Cher, Kurt Russell and Meryl Streep in the title role singing “Amazing Grace” while driving a Honda toward a decidedly unhappier ending than the back of the bus finale in The Graduate. By then, Nichols had started to produce through his Icarus Productions—Whoopi Goldberg’s profanity-laced standup show and the optimistic American-themed musical Annie and Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing on Broadway—including the groundbreaking ABC drama Family.

NicholsandMay1961PlaybillThough The Graduate came to represent Hollywood’s emerging anti-heroism, with glamorous movie stars and heroic stories pushed aside for dark, depraved themes and figures, Mike Nichols moved toward depicting an American resurgence of optimism and commercialism, in 1988’s unabashedly pro-capitalist Working Girl, with its opening and closing shots of the Twin Towers—referenced in Carly Simon’s theme song urging audiences to “let the dreamers wake the nation”—Statue of Liberty and the triumphal rise of the self-made entrepreneur in a skyscraper. The self-made is explored again in 1991’s quiet, underrated character drama, Regarding Henry, featuring Harrison Ford and Annette Bening as a couple who bring themselves into alignment with their chosen values after an act beyond their control radically changes their lives. His career reached its zenith with disease-themed TV productions Wit, which centers on cancer, and Angels in America, which dramatizes AIDS, preceded by his deceptively brilliant integration of his works in music, drama, humor, stage and cinema; an elated homage to being self-made, happy and neurotic, The Birdcage starring Nathan Lane and Robin Williams. That the adaptation of Jean Poiret’s La Cage Aux Folles was written by his original comedy partner Elaine May brings the outstanding career of the insatiable Mike Nichols full circle. Nichols, who is survived by his brother, children and wife, journalist Diane Sawyer, deserves to be studied and remembered. I think it may be another century before his brand of brightness, wit and intelligence make their way into pictures, shows and stories of high caliber again.

Lessons of the Berlin Wall

This week’s class in my social media course was an assignment for an oral-visual presentation intended to concretize that social media’s success is ultimately achieved in reality, not online.

Judging from the outcome and feedback, the lesson is learned. Stories told and items shown were presented with thought, concision and conviction. Each student told an amazing story with an accompanying physical item that captures some part of what they hold highest and dearest. From tales of a grandmother whose entrepreneurial spirit inspired an online enterprise, with faded black and white prints, to poetry readings and an inspiring story of an encounter on a flight to Omaha with a bill of money ending in Texas decades later with a deal for profit and a tale of taking risks in a haunted fashion show with Elvira, each student cashed in on an ability to communicate in a social context in a way that advanced their goals, growth and development. The students’ presentations were excellent. I told them so.

BurbankAdultSchoolBeing social, which necessitates communication, is part of man’s nature. The 9-week course at Burbank Adult School is predicated on this idea. It aims to enrich the student to learn skills to advance his self-interest. One of the student presentations demonstrated the course’s theme in an especially memorable way. It was created by a student who chose to tell the class about his time in Berlin.

Though he didn’t disclose the year, it was clearly many years ago. He said he had been teaching a skill he’d mastered to a group of students. Some of them, he said, had lived in East Germany, a Communist dictatorship controlled by the Soviet Union. He said he noticed something different about these students. In particular, he told the class that he’d observed something haunted, even vacant, in their eyes. In time, he explained, he realized that the students from Communist Germany were living in terror of making a mistake. He said he sought to help them. He told the class that he made an effort to alleviate their fear so they might begin to live free in the world again.

Then, he said, something extraordinary happened during the teaching of his course.

As he said this, pausing to pull his Show & Tell item from a black athletic bag, he took a moment to compose himself. The year, he explained, was 1989 and, as the Communist regime collapsed in Soviet Russia, the Berlin Wall came down. Reaching into his bag in silence and pulling out a chunk of concrete which was once part of the slave state imprisoning millions of Germans, he told the class in social media that his students had given him this gift for having taught them. He added quietly that he has treasured it ever since.

That day was 25 years ago this Sunday and, in a single display of concrete preceded by a tale of teaching victims of Soviet oppression, he communicated the power of reducing ideas to reality in a course on social media as a means of reducing ideas to reality. In his particular presentation, and in the other students’ presentations, too, he made my course, All About Social Media, searingly, brilliantly, all about his own life, work, liberty, happiness and self. That is the whole ideal.