Archive for Film/Television

Cultural Placeholders…

I’ve been thinking about generational differences lately and how each generation anchors itself with a set of creative icons, go-to figures, that serve as reference points on a timeline of cultural awareness.

What do you say or who do you think of when people ask you for your favorite movie, book, painting, or rock group? Who’s on that playlist? What music pops to mind? What paintings do you think of? What writers do you refer to and re-read? How you answer those questions most likely depends on the artistic/creative imprinting of your generation.  read more

Two Degrees of Separation…

I didn’t know Albert Finney, but when he died two days ago, I felt the loss personally. I’d admired him as an actor since first seeing him as the randy Tom Jones (1963) and again as Audrey Hepburn’s husband in Two for the Road (above) in 1967. He was nominated for an Oscar five times, but never took one home. He was an actor’s actor, but it wasn’t his acting chops that made me feel his loss.

Finney and I were only a year apart in age. Wikipedia doesn’t mention it, but I know he was an avid horse racing fan who followed the ponies from Saratoga to the Triple Crown and on to Santa Anita in the fall. In a tangential way, it was his interest in racing that provided our connection.

Mr. Finney was friends with Karen and Mickey Taylor. Two friends of mine. Two degrees of separation. The Taylors purchased Seattle Slew for $17,500 in 1975. Slew went on to win the Triple Crown and made the Taylors very wealthy. I knew them because they were customers of mine at Piccolo, the little Italian café my wife, Abby, and I owned.

Running a small restaurant is a labor of love – especially in a seasonal resort like Sun Valley. I made the pasta and bread. Abby ran the kitchen. Our small operation was either wildly busy or empty depending on the season. Christmas holidays were especially chaotic, and one Christmas week Mickey and Karen stopped in for lunch. The café seated 44 but there were probably 50 eating lunch on that particular day. Abby and the kitchen staff were cranking out the pasta dishes and I was up front seating customers, making espresso drinks, and busing tables.

At a particularly chaotic moment, with all the tables finishing at once, I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to see a grinning Albert Finney. “Hello, Jack. I’m Albert. It looks like you could use some help. Let me give you a hand cleaning up these tables.” I was nonplussed. I didn’t even realize he was in the restaurant, but for the next 30 minutes Albert Finney and I were the busboys at Piccolo. He couldn’t have been nicer or more natural, and that’s the reason I was personally touched when I heard of his passing on Thursday.

Sun Valley was founded by Averill Harriman in 1936 and always had celebrity appeal, but it was years behind Aspen and Vail in becoming a “scene.” When Abby and I moved there in 70’s it was very sleepy. In 1987 when we opened the restaurant it was becoming more popular but still a one-story, log cabin kind of town and quiet escape for some celebrities. Jamie Lee Curtis used to bring us loaves of bread from the La Brea Bakery in LA, and Edie Baskin (Baskin & Robbins/SNL writer) brought us fresh mozzarella from Dean and DeLuca in New York.

Piccolo was a place celebrities with a local connection could come for a dish of pasta and not be bothered. Carole King, Scott Glenn, Adam West, and Jack Hemingway were lunch regulars while Jamie Lee and husband Christopher Guest, Brooke Shields, and Peter Cetera were often there for dinner. It was a few years later that the one-story log cabins were replaced with two-story banks, galleries, and glitzy boutiques. Change is a given, but I feel fortunate to have been part of it before the change.

Albert Finney’s passing reminds me of those times. I left Ketchum after 25 years. Piccolo has closed its doors and I’ve lost touch with Karen and Mickey. Even so, Abby and all three of my children are there and it remains a special place for me. Tomorrow I’m planning to settle in with a cocktail and watch a couple of Albert’s films – maybe Murder on the Orient Express or Annie – just to keep this memory fresh. My day busing tables with him is the perfect reminder that in this time of megalomania even a rich and famous celebrity can be modest, friendly, and helpful.

RIP Albert Finney (1936 – 2019)

Drugs of Choice?

I yearn for a simpler time when doctors carried black bags and made house calls, baseball players stayed with the same team their entire career, and serious drugs were recommended and prescribed only by physicians.

I doubt that we’ll ever see the first two again, but we might live to see the day when America joins the rest of the world’s developed countries and stops hawking dangerous drugs on prime-time TV.

For the past week I’ve been watching, and one of the subtle take-aways is that most of these drug ads are targeted at older viewers – the news (CNN, Fox News, MSNBC) or television magazines (GMA, Today, or CBS This Morning). Implicit is the recognition that younger viewers are getting their news online.

Regardless, the next time a Vraylar or Eliquis ad interrupts your program, stay with it and listen to the sotto voce side effects while the happy family on the screen enjoys a hot air balloon ride or sail on the lake. In the meantime, here are Vraylar’s side effects:

  • extrapyramidal symptoms (muscle spasms, muscle rigidity, tremor, jerking movements)
  • agitation
  • indigestion
  • nausea
  • vomiting,
  • sleepiness,
  • restlessness,
  • weight gain
  • headache,
  • insomnia,
  • abdominal pain,
  • constipation,
  • toothache
  • anxiety,
  • diarrhea,
  • pain in the extremities,
  • dry mouth,
  • loss of appetite,
  • back pain
  • dizziness

Vraylar is just one example of the 27 drug ads I screened in the five days before writing this – all the while wondering why dangerous drugs were being advertised like Reese’s Pieces on TV? Curiously, these ads are all approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) not the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) or Health and Human Services (HHS). What possible justification is there for allowing drugs that can only be obtained with a physician’s written prescription to be “sold” on TV?

Since 1962, the FDA has regulated pharmaceutical advertising with a mandate to ensure it is not false or misleading. What about dangerous, inappropriate, improper, unnecessary, and out of place?

Here’s the FDA mission statement:“The Food and Drug Administration is responsible for protecting the public health by ensuring the safety, efficacy, and security of human and veterinary drugs, biological products, and medical devices; and by ensuring the safety of our nation’s food supply, cosmetics, and products that emit radiation.” 

There is nothing in the mission statement about marketing prescription drugs, nor is there anything related in the FCC or HHS regulations. If these three agencies are charged with protecting the public’s health doesn’t it make sense to limit the advocacy of serious drugs with harmful side effects to the medical professionals charged with matching the right drugs with the needs of their patients? Let’s take away the temptation of those who are gullible or desperate enough to be seduced by the happy family scenes in TV ads.

In 1970 Congress voted to ban tobacco advertising in the interest of the nation’s public’s health. It makes sense that it should do the same with prescription drugs.

I believe in a market economy, but advertising has nothing to do with good medical practice? We know that pharmaceutical companies pay doctors to promote their drugs. That in itself is shameful – on both sides of the equation, but let’s not have patients telling doctors what drugs they want based on something they saw advertised on TV? America and New Zealand are the only two developed countries that allow the direct to consumer advertising of pharmaceuticals on television.

Here’s how it hit home for me; I got annoyed by the interruptions and began cataloging all the drugs that were advertised on the programs I watched over a five day period. I quit adding to the list when I had 27.

Like most television watchers, I’d rather skip the commercials, but there are lessons to be learned when you pay attention to the spaces in between. Big Pharma is big business and marketing is a key element in growing that business.

Here’s how important TV ads are for Big Pharma: In the past 3 years (October 2015 to October 2018) prescription brands spent an estimated $10.1 billion on TV advertising. Last year 76 prescription drug brands spent an estimated $2.96 billion, running 200 ads 534,000 times on national TV. In total, these ads generated 148.9 billion impressions. None of these ads included price information, although Johnson & Johnson announced this week that it will begin to include that information in upcoming ads. According to an industry watchdog group called BiopharmaDive, spending for pharmaceutical ads in 2012 was the 12th-largest ad category. Last year, it was sixth. read more

The Trump Antidote…

I’m not easily upset or given to anxiety, but several recent high blood pressure readings on routine doctor visits raised a little concern at home. The readings particularly alarmed Marilynn, who is always surprised to hear that my blood pressure and cholesterol are lower than the average bear’s in spite of my affection for mayonnaise, eggs, butter, and sugar. So, in the interest of domestic peace, I caved and agreed to have it checked out.

I secretly hoped that the visit would be like the one to the car mechanic where, after an exhaustive inspection, the technician shakes his head, declares the problem non-existent, and hands me a bill for the labor. It turns out, luckily, that my suspicions were right; my doctor took three readings in the 120/70 range, smiled knowingly, and sent me home…with a bill for services.

In retrospect, my own diagnosis is “transient Donald Trump effect.” Hours spent listening to MSNBC tweet storm after tweet storm. After a while my muscles tense, my blood pressure rises, and I begin to shout at the TV. Not a blood pressure problem – just a form of global political stress. I’m sure I’m not alone, but if I’m going to survive the next two years I need to divine a coping strategy.

So, reassured that BP is not the problem, Marilynn and I began thinking of a survival strategy. Our first act was to acknowledge that our preference for dark little art films probably wasn’t increasing our joy and feeling of well-being. In the past few weeks we’ve seen Black Klansman, Collete, Can You Ever Forgive Me, The Wife, and Roma. None of them have you leaving the theater with a smile on your face. We need to let our affection for these dark, arty films slide for the time being. On Christmas Day we substituted Mary Poppins Returns.

I was skeptical but willing to try. Would this just be saccharine eye/ear candy? Those of you who know me will understand. I’m not a fan of animated films (there is animation). I’m not attracted to special effects where people fly (Mary flies). And, feel good films made primarily for children (this is one of those) are not in my wheelhouse. So, Mary Poppins Returns looked like a serious test of our new strategy. Surprisingly, it passed with flying colors (no pun intended) thanks to Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda, and I really did leave the theater smiling.

I’ve grown to love modern technology. Almost everything has a digital analog these days, and with TiVo and Roku there are so many options from Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, YouTube, Pandora and others. When I was learning how to use a computer (remember MS-DOS?) one of my motivations was knowing that if I mastered the basics, I could access the New York Public Library’s reference section. Imagine… Today, MS-DOS is ancient history and so are Internet Explorer, Alta Vista, Yahoo and the other early search engines. Today, it’s all about Google and research is as close as your next key stroke. My daughter writes for national publications from her Hailey, Idaho home and my wife manages a senior health care consultancy from Saigon, Berlin, Paris, and Rome – wherever we happen to be – with her MacBook Pro.

So, after seeing Mary Poppins Returns, we came home and pulled up YouTube on our living room TV and watched parts of the original Julie Andrews/Dick Van Dyke version, saw interviews with the actors, songwriters, screenwriters, and directors of both versions, and… it sounds pretentious, but also talked about the relevance of Mary Poppins to what’s going on in the world today.

Think about the films–both Mary Poppins’ versions. They’re about young families with small children. The Banks families – Jr. and Sr. They’re both struggling financially. In Returns the young mother dies. The distraught husband, a teller at the bank that holds the deed, neglects to make a house payment (the wife’s job) and they fall behind on their mortgage. The evil bankers, pretending to help, foreclose. In the first film the father, is fired by Mr. Dawes, the evil banker, but dies laughing at one of Mr. Banks’ Sr.’s jokes. I won’t give away the ending of the new film, but it’s equally satisfying.

So, how far do we have to go to find real life parallels? Not so far, it turns out. Trump’s Secretary of the Treasury made a fortune foreclosing on sub-prime mortgages sold to vulnerable people who shouldn’t have been given mortgages in the first place. In November, Munchkin and his thin-skinned trophy wife were making news at the US Mint while simultaneously disparaging the poor unfortunates who are unable to afford the luxe items she lives for. Indulge me while I imagine the Munchkins dying of laughter on their way to the bank. Life imitates art?

So… the strategy is working. My blood pressure is down and I’m having so much fun I’ve forgotten about Donald J. Trump. I’m reminded of Norman Cousins’ book Anatomy of an Illness in which Cousins, afflicted with a life-threatening disease, initiated a revolution in patient care by adopting the innovative theory that humor can marshal the body’s natural resources to combat disease. Thank you, Mr. Cousins; you and Mary Poppins have me smiling again. We’re on a roll.

Marilynn is lifelong fan of musical theater and she has brought me along in the last few years. They’re seductive and habit-forming. Two weeks ago, we saw Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, another feel good, smile generating musical – this one with an immigrant theme. How timely. These feel-good entertainments are charged with deeper meanings. Who knew?

At the end of Mary Poppins Returns, Mary flies away, and and as we left the theater we reminisced about how other musicals had also made us feel good. We remembered seeing Singing in the Rain for the first time and after checking out the Mary Poppins stuff on YouTube, we went to Amazon Prime and put Singing in the Rain on our watchlist. I suppose it’s the time we live in, but in these perilous times it’s easy to find secret messages in these feel-good movies.

Singing in the Rain is about how technology changed the film industry. It’s hard to find a more current topic. In the musical, the story line is about the transition from silent films to talkies. The star, Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), loses her star role because of her shrill voice and Queens accent while Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) becomes a star because she can sing, dance – and talk. No lip synching (yes, lip-synching is what brings Lina down). Think Milli Vanilli, Ashlee Simpson, and Victoria Beckham.

And, if you think it’s a stretch to see Singing in the Rain as political, check out how the Sunshine State News (Florida rag) uses it vis a vis today’s news.

In any event, I think we’re on to something. It’s important to find some balance in our lives and coping strategies to deal with both disease and Donald Trump. Trump will be gone soon enough, relatively speaking, but if we’re not in good health it won’t matter. Find your own survival strategy. For now, finding things that make me smile and take me briefly away from Oval Office tweet storms, is my strategy. To die laughing isn’t a bad end is it Mr. Banks?

 

Feeling Sorry for Trump…

The universe works in mysterious ways… Last night, for the first time, I actually felt sorry for Donald Trump. It happened at a performance of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights at the Seattle Repertory Theater. Miranda’s hip hop/rap/salsa/merengue musical chronicles the lives of a group of Latinx immigrants full of hope and aspiration in the Washington Heights neighborhood at the northern tip of Manhattan. Some are first generation, some second, but they found their way to the Heights from all over Latin America – Cuba, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Puerto Rico – in search of a better life. What they find there, in the tenements and steamy summer heat of Upper Manhattan, is community and a shared humanity.

So, what caused my mind shift last night? It’s complicated. I’d been working on an article about the current border crisis but couldn’t figure out how to talk about it without dipping into typical liberal-speak about fear, racial bias, or the tired entreaties of “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” But, last night, the music and energy of In the Heights gave me the positive image I was looking for – hard working immigrants surging with energy, hope, and a devotion to community wanting to make a better life for themselves and their families. Yes, it’s a musical fiction. Yes, it’s riding the wave and enormous success of Miranda’s Hamilton. But, like all good art, its power comes from the emotion it releases in us and the truth it conveys.

I feel sorry for Donald Trump because he doesn’t know that joy of community. His body language tells us he’s never felt the liberating power of dance and music. His words and actions tell us he doesn’t understand or appreciate the value of artistic expression. As president, he has rejected two invitations to attend the Kennedy Center Honors, created to recognize “exceptional artists who have made enduring and indelible marks on our culture.” Nor has he invited a single artist to perform at the White House. Who can forget the Pablo Casals performance at the Kennedy White House, Bill Clinton playing the sax on the Arsenio Hall Show, or Lin-Manuel previewing the first song of Hamilton for the Obamas and friends when it was just being written? Trump’s ignorance and myopia prevent him from enjoying or acknowledging the contributions of the many diverse communities – Jewish, Hispanic, African-American, Irish, Italian, Polish, Arab, Asian – that make up the American experience. I feel sorry for him but I don’t forgive him for what he’s done to our culture and reputation.

In Trump’s America, walking on eggshells is easier than finding common ground for a discussion of immigration policy. I confess, I can’t wrap my head around the “why” of it, but his incendiary midterm election rhetoric and a fearful, lethargic Congress are keeping us from having a meaningful dialogue and finding a solution to the immigration “problem.”

At its core, the “problem” is difficult only because opposing camps have been unwilling to sit down and wrestle with the details. If we want to find a solution, both sides need to tamp down of the rhetoric, approach the discussion in good faith, summon our capacity for compassion, and be willing to compromise. At its simplest, it will require capital – human and financial – along with acceptance of the fact that war, anarchy, gang violence and corruption underlie the soaring number of immigrants surging along our southern border.

This is not normal, nor is it just an American problem…it’s worldwide. Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and the Americas are all experiencing unprecedented flows of refugee and migrant populations. In the Americas, that influx is putting immense pressure on the people and systems that protect our southern border. Refugees and migrants fleeing the danger in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador are increasing the stress at American border crossings.

To be clear, the migrants and refugees swarming toward us now are exceptions to normal immigration. Depending on who’s speaking these are “undocumented immigrants,” “illegal aliens,” “economic migrants,” or “bad people.” Each appellation has a layered connotation, but regardless of your political leanings, telling tens of thousands of people that they need to apply for admission to the United States through established procedural channels is an avoidance strategy not a solution. The current administration has its head in the sand if it thinks this mass movement is going to sit on its hands in Tijuana for 10 years in order to be considered for possible inclusion in normal visa flows.

Why isn’t Congress’ addressing the crisis? Lancing this festering boil on our southern border should be their number one priority. Until a solution is crafted the entire US government will be stalled. Can a divided Congress find the will to address it? We’re suffering and divided and will continue to be until it does. There are no simple solutions. It’s difficult but not impossible. In 2013 the US Senate passed the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, a bipartisan bill introduced and co-sponsored by the Gang of Eight (4 leading Republicans and 4 leading Democrats). Hearings were held, markups made, and on June 27, 2013 the Senate passed the bill with a vote of 68 to 32.

The bill provided “illegal immigrants” who resided in the US prior to December 31, 2011 a path to citizenship pending the payment of a fine, back taxes, and passing a background check without a criminal record. It also gave the children of illegal immigrants, the so-called “Dreamers,” permanent resident (Green Card) status. It beefed up the border fence and increased the number of US Customs and Border Protection agents and introduced a “merit-based visa system” to deal with future legal immigration.

Despite bipartisan Senate passage, the House of Representatives under Speaker John Boehner refused to bring the bill to a vote. It died on the floor of the House. Today, the problem still exists, and we are further from a solution than we were in 2013.

Some Americans, fueled by Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric, see a threatening invasion of Central Americans on our southern border, but immigration is not just an American problem. In the UK, hard feelings and divisions over immigration forced a vote that resulted in Britain’s departure from the European Union. Similarly, European countries dealing with an unprecedented wave of refugees from war torn Middle Eastern and North African countries are straining to find resources and struggling to assimilate diverse populations. In Myanmar, Rohingya natives fleeing genocide are relocating to an unwelcoming Bangladesh. The underlying causes of these problems are many, but their geographic distribution makes it clear that immigration is not, as Donald Trump wants us to believe, primarily an American phenomenon.

Most countries, including America, have a system in place to process migrants that establishes the number and categories of immigrants it will accept annually. The American system is not perfect but it has been an orderly way to evaluate and vet people wanting to relocate to the United States.

The migrants on our southern border do not fit into our normal system for the orderly processing of applicants. The world is no longer orderly, if it ever was, and extreme events such as drought, famine, civil war, and despotic governments, death squads and terrorism are driving populations from their homes in search of safer places to live. These extremes underlie the sudden and desperate relocation of huge numbers of people. The “system” was never intended to address or manage large disorderly populations like the ones we’re seeing today. These groups, whether they are Syrians seeking refuge in Germany or Hondurans fleeing drug violence for a safe haven in America, do not have time to wait the eleven years it takes to go through the systematic visa vetting process. They are terrified, and their plight is urgent.

All of these “extra” immigrant populations are “undocumented,” meaning they do not have the required documents to immigrate legally. Most are hoping to be granted asylum status and be admitted on the basis of threats to their welfare. So, how do we approach a solution to this extraordinary situation?

Historian Jon Meacham’s most recent book, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels asks us to consider how we got into this polarized, gridlocked political stalemate and appeals to “our better angels” to lead us out of it. Where is our compassion? What kind of government tells migrants the only way to asylum is through an official port of entry and then blocks access to that crossing? What perversion leads this same government, our government, to limit asylum interviews to a handful each day while thousands are told they have to wait their turn. Where is the “can do” spirit that can put a man on the moon but can’t process asylum applications for people who have walked more than 1000 miles seeking safety? What kind of a president sends an armed military to an international border as a pre-election stunt when border law officers are adequate for enforcement? What kind of government uses tear gas against women and children whose only sin is frustration with a broken system only ask for a safe place to live.

According to best estimates, there are about 11 million undocumented immigrants living in America. They mow our lawns, make our beds, wash our dishes, and clean our houses. That’s 3.66% of the US population. Estimates are that 3.6 million of the 11 million are “DREAMers,” children brought to the US by their parents and given a special status by President Obama. Because Congress hasn’t solved the problem there are now roughly 4000 migrants at or near the US-Mexico border. On Sunday, ICE closed the border and used tear gas to push the crowd on the opposite side of the border back.

Referring to In the Heights, Braden Abraham, Artistic Director of the Seattle Rep wrote

“I’m struck by how this (2008) groundbreaking work resonates differently now and more broadly than ever. A lot has happened over the last decade, from the Great Financial Crisis, to Lin-Manuel transforming musical theater with is monumental Hamilton, to the emergence of immigration as the toxic centerpiece of our politics. As incendiary as this is, the first may be the better clue to In the Heights increased relevance. The questions Lin-Manuel’s Upper Manhattan Latinx community wrestles with—what it means to have roots, a community, or a home; whether to stay in a pace or leave or if one even has a choice in the face of economic inequality and gentrification; whether the American Dream can still be achieved—are increasingly being asked by people and communities, both immigrant and no-immigrant, throughout our country. read more