Dark Comedy “The Professor” and Mortality Films

I heard nothing about Johnny Depp‘s recent dark comedy The Professor when I trolled through Amazon’s waters for something new to rent. It was a love/hate experience. One of those films that has great ideas and witty occasions but executed in a sloppy way that undermines the story. I really wanted to like the film. I love Johnny Depp. And I dislike much of his films. He has so much talent that shines forward in scenes, but he can’t seem to find a film that showcases him to the stature he belongs as an actor. In this film, his voice warbles and remains low and other accents from previous characters creep in. He doesn’t seem to know how to act the part. (2.5 stars) Yet, the ideas about the film come through and linger with me. 

Johnny plays a New England English academic who is diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. He decides not to seek treatment knowing he has six months to live. This confrontation with mortality alters his perception of life and his teaching style. He throws away professionalism and embarks on a journey with his English students with a carpe diem approach including partying and random sex. In short, he throws away his authority and parties it up with his students while expecting earnest conversations. Time is not to be wasted. The movie is a cross between Old School and Dead Poet’s Society. It’s profane and not too funny much of the time. Too bad, since stories with themes that include the insights to a meaningful life appeal to me, and I love a good dark comedy. Maybe you liked it?

Finally, at the end of the movie, the message arrives. Treat your days as though they were your last. Don’t be a part of the 98 percent who embrace mediocrity. Strive to be an individual and live life with meaning. Well, it’s certainly sage advice we’ve heard of before in films. Do you recognize these famous lines?

“Make each day count.  Hear, hear! To making it count.”

“Earn this.”  

“Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”

“You is kind. You is smart. You is important.”

“Life is hard. It’s supposed to be. If we didn’t suffer, we wouldn’t learn a thing.”

“Don’t look back. It drags at your heart till you can’t do anything but look back.”

It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard…is what makes it great.”

“Not all those who wander are lost.”

“A heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.”

“I do not expect us to agree about everything, but I would much rather have you believe in something I don’t agree with than to accept everything blindly. And that begins with thinking rationally.”

“Listen to me, mister. You’re my knight in shining armor. Don’t you forget it. You’re going to get back on that horse, and I’m going to be right behind you, holding on tight, and away we’re gonna go, go, go!”

Have you noticed many films with the best messages are played by a dynamic duo from the 80s and 90s? Do you think there is a correlation between the memorable lines said by the characters played by Tom Hanks and Robin Williams? That is to say, the sentimentality incurred by their famous lines made them endearing to the public. Another way of putting it — their famous lines made the actor, not necessarily their talent? I do.

What are some of your favorite lines that give insight into the meaning of life?

 

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Jack, Titanic; Capt. Miller, Saving Private Ryan; John Keating, Dead Poet’s Society; Abileen Clark, The Help; Jesse, Before Sunset; Scarlett, Gone with the Wind; Jimmy Dugan, A League of Their Own; Gandalf, The Fellowship of the Ring; The Wizard of Oz; Santosh Patel, The Life of Pi; Ethel, On Golden Pond. 

 

 

IMO: Blues and Rachmaninov

As a person not schooled in music, it doesn’t stop the instinctual draw to the beauty of different genres. Music is like wine. Either it tastes good or it doesn’t. Your palette is in charge of you, not the other way around. Like wine, I like how music speaks to me regardless of whether someone says this is excellent or this is garbage.

With music, I enjoy different viewpoints. Why is this piece good? How did the artist create it? The appreciation grows, and my initial like turns to love. Time plays a part. A song I loved at twelve makes me cringe when I hear it today. Basically the entire Carpenters collection. So what? At twelve their music depressed me and somehow that made me happy. Anyway, when I investigate a genre of music, learning about the layers of its history and composition alters me at an emotive level. Rachmaninov is a friend of mine. In fact, his music invades me and becomes a part of who I am. Even if, like me, you can’t play a note.

Blues

I don’t claim to know much about the Blues other than it is the great influencer. I can tell you a famous name like Muddy Waters who played an important role. But I couldn’t tell you why, other than when he migrated to Chicago, he influenced others to play like him. Blues influenced Rock and Roll. I have listened to Bonnie Raitt, Janis Joplin,  Eric Clapton, and Stevie Ray Vaughan all my life. They all link their beginnings to previous blues greats. In the historical timeline, who is first? .

On Netflix last night, I watched a brief documentary (48 min) about Robert Johnson, a legendary Mississippi Delta Blues player called ReMastered: Devil at the Crossroads. I enjoyed hearing from other blues artists like Taj Mahal and music scholars who researched Johnson’s life and attempted to explain his importance. Surrounding the biography was the legends about him. The supernatural slant gave it a flavor that coincides with African American mythologies. Then, add to the mix Robert Johnson is a member of the 27 Club. Well, you can see how the man and the myth are a theme within the story.

It was his actual technique with the guitar which interested me. With huge fingers, he managed to sound like three players playing at once. Dexterous fingers illustrated. Though Robert Johnson recorded only one record of approximately 29 songs, his tragic life earned him the right to play the blues. He influenced a host of subsequent blues musicians.

Blues is a world where the gritty aspects of life are made better by its escape. Blues has a life of its own and the artists and the audience are connected. When I listen to blues, I’m on a trip where my mind and heart sit side by side. It’s a fine journey.

Rachmaninov

In the same 24 hour period, I switched from Blues to classical piano. Sergei is my man. In chapter one of my recent book, Fritz Lang’s wife, Thea von Harbou, is an accomplished pianist killing time on a set at UFA studios. My anti-hero, George, discovers her playing Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C Sharp Minor. As she bangs the death march, she swears at her husband in sync with each chord. It was a challenge to write the scene expressing the beat of the piece.

This morning I discovered “Rousseau” on Youtube. It visually shows you the chords and their beats. It’s stunning. What a great way to experience classical music! Different genre, another trip. Add the visual to the auditory–it made me experience Rachmaninov on a different level. He wrote this piece apparently when he was only 19. He had a dream, the story goes, where he marched forward to a casket. He opened it up and it was him inside.

This prelude best describes what my mind and heart feels like inside. It’s loud in here.

And you? What do your mind and heart sound like as if it were set to music? 

IMO: Extremism is the New Reality

I assume the intellectual set has come up with the term for today’s obsession for extremism representing the last decade in television and filmmaking. Or is this post-post-post modernism? Netflix and Amazon, HBO, to name a few, have kicked the shins of the traditional format for movie making and television. They don’t have to abide by FCC rules. FCC rules found here. The result? Cable television has few restrictions, if at all. Their influence has had a dramatic effect.

1. Nudity and sex are commonplace.

2. Profanity has never been raunchier.

3. Deviant behavior storylines abound.

4. Apocalyptic storylines abound.

5. There is no God.

By now I’m guessing you think I’m a prude and ultra-Conservative suggesting we reinstate a censorship board to protect the virtues inherent in children and society as a whole. Like in the 80s when the moral majority attempted to control the hair bands by censoring their music with a warning label.

NO. I’m not on a soapbox trying to persuade you that amorality has us enthralled. I’m saying we are desensitized. Like blogging and self-publishing, we are inundated with choices. The speed at which the removal of barriers, not for the purpose of telling a story that needs to be heard, but for the shock value to hook us, is akin to the rush of cocaine to distance oneself from the boredom of normalcy. The barriers I’m referring to are 1 – 5 above. 

For the record, narratives of varying viewpoints are welcome. Go LGBT. My idea of deviance is a storyline about torture. Especially children. (Absentia, The Alienist). Nudity and Sex in all its variations. Game of Thrones. Westworld. The use of extreme profanity. Even The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has its raunchy moments. Pick your series!

Take Netflix’s new hit, The Russian Doll, for instance. Created by Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler, and Leslye Headland, it is a dark comedy-drama that has a smart, highly entertaining storyline. Natasha Lyonne’s character Nadia describes herself as “If Andrew Dice Clay and Merida from Brave had a child…” referencing the Disney heroine with big red hair along with the 80s NY comedian who was banned for his crass and rowdy routine. (Since A Star is Born, his raunchy routine redux tour has sold out.)

I focused on the Mindbender aspects of the story when I watched season 1 and tried hard to ignore the extreme profanity and casual sex and substance abuse like it was a mainstream part of life. It’s obviously made for a mature audience, but like the previous examples, the access to them is unrestricted. The story for select audiences becomes mainstream. 

As a teacher,  I have seen students watch this before, during lunch, and after school, because they heard it was really good. I have to confiscate phones daily. Students will plug their buds in their ears and tune in to their phone during the middle of class. They are addicted to extremism. And it can’t compete with learning. Learning a subject takes imagination and repetitious practice and active engagement.

Dragons and witches will rule in April with the advent of Game of Thrones. Who does the storyline target? Banging sex is a part of the package. It’s hard to watch students obsessed with it during school hours. I’m betting elementary and middle school kids have seen it, too.

It’s the stripping of inference and the death of imagination for the sake of extremism that has me concerned. When you reposition what was once behind closed doors to the center stage and put it up on a platform for all to see, especially children & teenagers, the loss of innocence has me wondering what price will we pay for this new liberation? 

Can you imagine films and television in the next ten to twenty years? What happens when there is no more envelope to push? Taboos a thing of the past? Do we need taboos in society? Or will it one day be okay to watch child sex in a television series and sadomasochism and bestiality?

“Restriction” has now become the foulest word in the English language followed closely behind “moderation”.

I’m a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock and film noir. Talk about gritty, deviant storylines. I know Hitch was restricted by the studio system (probably a good thing) because it caused him to tell a creepy story by using devices that activated the imagination. I enjoy historical fiction, science fiction, and mysteries. I crave complicated characters and smart dialogue. Tell the story. Please, don’t forget the underrated technique of subtlety.

The point: films and television series have pushed the envelope off the table with unnecessary jolting language and abusive or sexual situations to the mainstream.

What films or television series do you notice embrace the extreme? If you took out the extreme elements would the storyline suffer?  

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