The Kids are All Right (2010)

If What Maisie Knew is a study of a toxic dysfunctional family, then The Kids are All Right is its exact opposite. The Kids are All Right features a loving family, very vanilla, so much so that it almost makes you gag. The family live in an affluent and liberal part of Los Angeles, Venice Beach, one parent is a stay-at-home parent and the other is an obstetrician. The two children of this marriage are so well behaved that it’s a dream for most parents with teenagers. They get good grades, they stay out of trouble. They are respectful to their parents. They do as they are told without objection.

The only thing that is unconventional about this family is that the two parents are a lesbian couple, married, each carried a child with the same sperm donor. Their daughter Joni, played wonderfully by Mia Wasikowska at some point during the movie accuses her parents of wanting the “perfect lesbian family”.

At the beginning of the film, Joni has just turned 18 and is about to go off to college. She is a straight-A student, a serious and studious girl who aims to please her parents so that they aren’t criticized for forming a lesbian family. Her brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson) who is two years younger, is more laid back. He wants to meet their sperm donor but because he’s not yet 18 so he cannot legally inquire, but his sister can. He implores her to go to the sperm bank and find out who their donor is. Joni reluctantly agrees, they find out he’s a guy called Paul (Mark Ruffalo) and he lives nearby. They agree to meet. Both of them immediately take to him, especially Joni, who appreciates his laid back attitude to life compared with her more uptight ways. The kids wanted to keep this a secret from their mothers but felt in the end it would seem disloyal and sneaky. Since they weren’t doing anything wrong, they decided to tell their moms about the meeting with Paul.

They also told their mothers that they’d like to keep on seeing Paul – the sperm donor, but in order to do that their moms Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) demands that they meet Paul too. The meeting went well and both moms, with some reservations, gave their blessings to allow the relationship between the sperm donor and children to continue.

This is where the cracks in Nic and Jules’s marriage begin to appear. Like all families, there are problems, even the most idyllic looking ones. Nic, the main breadwinner of the family can be controlling and domineering. Since their children were born, Jules has always been the stay-at-home parent, though it wasn’t always her choice. She had aspirations of some type of a career, and she’s started and ended a lot of projects and careers, all funded by Nic. She’s recently started a new landscaping business again, she’s eager to create a career for herself, something to call her own. Nic supports her but in a sort of passive aggressive way. Nic also has a drinking issue, she is very close to becoming a functional alcoholic. Everyone, including the children, notices her drinking but don’t say much about it.

Paul upon hearing about Jules’s new landscaping business decides to hire her to redo the gardens of his home, which has become an overgrown jungle. Nic doesn’t like the idea but she doesn’t want to appear unsupportive, she reluctantly agrees. We soon find out the reason for Nic’s reservations, it appears that Jules is bisexual, or perhaps used to be bisexual before she committed to a lesbian relationship. Jules quickly begins an affair with Paul and it’s a passionate affair. Let’s just say she really missed having a man to have sex with and enjoys herself a little too much in the coitus department, especially for a supposed lesbian. They engage in passionate daily sex sessions while they are supposed to be planning the garden, needless to say, not much work was done.

Paul is your typical man who doesn’t want to commit to any single woman. He’s hedonistic and carefree and does what pleases him, compared to the uptight and controlling Nic, he’s a breath of fresh air. He’s also flattering to Jules–something Nic isn’t, and it makes her feel good and worthy again. Except he was only flattering to her because he wants to sleep with her, something Jules doesn’t realize for obvious reasons. Jules feels terrible about betraying her wife, but doesn’t really do much to stop herself from sleeping with Paul either.

At the same time Paul is sleeping with the children’s mother, he is also spending a lot of time with Joni and Laser. They really like him, and like that old saying blood is thicker than water, the children bonded with him. These children never had a father around, never a man in the house, they never knew what they missed until now and they like him. In turn, he also bonded with his ‘kids’ too, he begun to see those children as his own though he has no right to. He’s careful to not cross boundaries or discipline inappropriately, but he makes an effort to be a ‘good friend’ to them. In fact, it’s about the only people he’s ever allowed himself to commit to, since he won’t commit to one woman.

Throughout this whole time, Nic feels that something is amiss. She feels that her children are drifting away from her and her relationship with Jules is on shaky ground. To clear the air and ease tensions, they all agree to go to Paul’s house to have dinner. When Nic goes to use the restroom she finds clumps of Jules’s flaming red hair in Paul’s shower drain (just like how she leaves it at their house – that’s a bone of contention between them). Feeling worried, she tiptoes to Paul’s bedroom and takes a look around and sure enough Jules’s red hair is found on Paul’s pillow and bedsheets and she learns the truth. Her wife is having an affair with a man and not just any man, the man who also happens to be their children’s sperm donor. And on top of that, he’s carefree, sexy and good looking with a penis – the opposite of her. This can threaten her family.

Later that evening, they have a confrontation and Jules ends up on the couch and the children know what’s happened. The children are sad and disappointed that the man they have begun to like and trust has done this to their mothers’ marriage. They wish he is a better person.

In recent years, the concept of a family has changed to be more inclusive. The idea of mom, dad, two kids and a dog constitutes an ideal family is no longer. Joni and Laser while grew up in a loving and affluent household, with supportive parents, but without a father or male figure, and when they did find their sperm donor, they are instinctively drawn to him like moths to flame. There’s no explanation, logical or otherwise. They just ‘liked’ him when they met him, even the usually stoic and methodical Joni. Is it genetic, or just pure curiosity on what it’s like to have a dad after not being raised with one, it’s hard to know.

The director of the film Lisa Cholodenko, is a lesbian in a committed relationship raising a son together, perhaps she wanted to explore what it’s like for children who didn’t grow up with the concept of having a mother and father and how that affects them. The traditional family is perhaps the oldest institution in the world. It’s prehistoric, before any political or civil institution was formed, the family was the bedrock of society, some would argue it still is but the composition of a family has changed. So when you change one of the major components of the family, how does that affect the children? There will always be a curiosity of the person that gave you half of his or her DNA, there’s no getting away from that. It doesn’t matter if it’s a household with two dads or two moms, the children of those unions will always wonder about the other half of them. To pretend that curiosity doesn’t exist or can be tucked away would be naive.

Lisa Cholodenko explores this subject in a very sensitive manner. As much as Joni and Laser like their sperm donor Paul, but when it came time to choose, due to the bad behavior of Paul, they chose their family, their mothers. Before Joni was to go off to college, Paul came by their house one last time asking if they could still keep in touch and be friends, Joni’s logical side came back to her and she gave a noncommittal answer, but most of all, she was disappointed with him. She wanted Paul, ‘her dad’ essentially, to be better, to act better, to make better decisions. In short, he wasn’t who she thought he was. Her younger brother Laser, who wanted to initiate this meeting to begin with, wouldn’t even speak to Paul. These two children have something that most children don’t have –and that is the freedom and luxury of rejecting a father who disappoints them.

Nic rightly asserted that Paul was an “interloper” and that if he wanted a family he should go build his own and stay away from hers. In the end Nic and Jules reconciled – it was painful and bruising to them both. But at least they got to get to the bottom of the troubles in their relationship and mend it as opposed to glossing over it. In the end, your family are the people you choose and allow in, not so much what society or genetics dictate.

What Maisie Knew (2012)

The movie adaptation of What Maisie Knew, directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel is an updated rendering of Kramer v. Kramer, directed by Robert Benton. The topic is the same, divorcing parents who despise each other and how their children are the victims of their mutual hatred.

While Kramer v. Kramer puts a gloss or a veneer on the subject, to appeal to more conservative times in the 1980s and the story is told from the perspective of the parents; What Maisie Knew does away with that gloss and gives us the unvarnished version of how it looks from a child’s point of view when her parents’ are at war with each other. The camera angles in What Maisie Knew is always at the level of the child, the audience gets to see the events and the people in her life from her vantage point, a small person, looking up at the scary adult world, which can be overwhelming for a child.

What Maisie Knew was originally a Henry James novel published in 1897. It’s a novel about upper middle class parents who divorce and each parent use their child Maisie to manifest their hatred and disdain for each other. In the novel, the custody arrangement is that Maisie lives with each parent six months at a time, but her parents are narcissistic and selfish people and Maisie is often left in the care of her caretakers, who do a better job looking after her than her parents.

The movie version essentially kept the same plot but updated the events to take place in modern day New York City. Maisie’s mother Susanna is a rock musician who tours with her band. She has moderate success as a rock musician and has a small fan base and they often party at her house while Maisie is there. Maisie’s father Beale is no better either. He’s a successful art dealer who is often away on business. On the outside, Beale looks like the more stable parent because he knows how to keep his temper in check, whereas Susanna has a bad temper who is prone to losing her cool and Beale knows exactly which buttons to push to make her lose her temper, and she falls for it every time. The care of Maisie is left in the care of Margo, her Scottish nanny, who is loving and kind. Margo tries to shield Maisie from the ugly fighting of her parents and tries to make life ‘normal’ for her.

Susanna and Beale finally divorce, the custody of Maisie becomes a battleground. Each parent tries to undermine the other as they each petition for sole custody, even though they both have no intention of parenting Maisie themselves. Beale seduced and married Margot to install her as Maisie’s caretaker and as his wife, then he won’t need to pay her. Susanna married Lincoln, a younger bartender so he can babysit Maisie (also for free) when she’s working. Susanna and Beale just about violate every cardinal rule about divorce where there is children involved. They say terrible things about the other parent to Maisie. Susanna calls Beale an “asshole” in front of Maisie. She locks Beale out and have a nasty fight through the locked front door while Maisie is standing right there, she makes no attempt to moderate herself and her temper in the presence of her young daughter. While Beale is less vitriolic, he undermines Susanna’s authority at every turn, he tells Maisie that her mother is mentally unstable and makes fun of Susanna temper tantrums, he also makes condescending remarks about Susanna’s waning singing career. One of the worst things they do is sending Maisie off to court appointed child psychiatrists to get her to say something bad about the other parent in an effort to gain sole custody.

Maisie takes all of this in stride, for a six year old, she’s very astute on what she should and shouldn’t say, as if she knew if she said the wrong thing to the wrong person, she’ll be ripped away from one of her parents forever. She also became adept at navigating the murky waters of her parents’ narcissism and selfishness. In front of her parents, she tries to be the perfect little girl so that they won’t be mad at each other or mad at her. Like many children of divorce, she probably thinks it’s her fault that her parents are divorcing. Susanna and Beale never even took the time to tell their daughter that their divorce and mutual hatred for each other and all this shouting, insults and ugliness is not her fault and that they love her no matter what. Margo did that bit for them.

While Joanna and Ted of Kramer v. Kramer seek to mitigate the effects of their divorce on their child, Susanna and Beale make no such effort. Joanna and Ted Kramer each want sole custody because they want to parent little Billy; Susanna and Beale want sole custody of Maisie to spite each other. Susanna nor Beale have any interest in being Maisie’s main caregiver, they will farm out the tedious bits of parenting and when time permits and when it suits their mood that day, they’ll swoop in the front door and be the ‘Disneyland parent’. This is their idea of good parenting. Perhaps the greatest tragedy (or not) of this toxic situation is Maisie’s unwavering unconditional love for each of her parents, no matter how appalling they’ve been. Each time she sees them, the excitement overtakes her, she runs straight into their arms – and it’s worthy to note, Maisie isn’t a particularly expressive child. Yet her parents can’t see that and endeavor to behave better towards Maisie and each other.

The custody arrangement is a disaster, they are to hand Maisie over t0 each other every 10 days except both Susanna and Beale either ‘forget’ to drop Maisie off or they drop her off a few days early or a few days later. This drives both Margo and Lincoln insane as they become the de facto parents of Maisie. Pretty soon both parents disappear altogether. Susanna disappears for days at a time to go ‘on tour’, Beale disappears for weeks at a time because he’s in London making deals. When both Margo and Lincoln realized they’ve been used to help their respective spouses gain custody and be free child care to Maisie they become angry and disillusioned and turn to each other for friendship. They remain in Maisie’s life to look after her because no one else will and they bonded with Maisie on an emotional level. While Beale doesn’t much care if Maisie prefers Margo over him – Maisie is just a trophy to him; Susanna, on top of unwilling to be a parent, resents the fact that Maisie warms to Lincoln and prefers Lincoln’s company over her own sometimes. She lashes out at both Lincoln and Maisie. Susanna and Beale are thoroughly unlikeable characters without any trace of character traits which might make them sympathetic. They are selfish, narcissistic and horrible people, not just towards Maisie but to everyone else too.

Perhaps when Henry James wrote this novel in the late 1800s, he wrote this as a warning of what might happen if ancient institutions such as marriage and family are not honored, there will be children split into two homes shuttling back and forth, not knowing that it’s become a reality less than 100 years later. With divorce rate hovering at 50%, many children are being shuttled between two homes on a weekly basis.

Of all the horrible things that happened to Maisie, she took it on the chin. She doesn’t cry when her mom or dad doesn’t come pick her up from school, or when she realizes she’s been made into a pawn between her hateful parents. She has Margo and Lincoln to fall back on for love and support. Children being the intuitive beings they are know immediately the people who truly care for them and will naturally navigate towards them. The nadir of the movie is when Susanna had a day off during her tour, she made an unannounced visit back to New York City, gets into a fight with Lincoln which ends their marriage (child care arrangement), with Lincoln spitting the words “You don’t deserve her (Maisie)” to her and walks away. Susanna intended to postpone her tour and stay in New York City with Maisie for awhile, but she gets a call from her manager telling her that she must return to tour or else she’ll be sued. She has no choice but to return. Beale by this time has moved back to England permanently, divorced Margo the nanny, Susanna just ended her marriage to Lincoln, instead of calling Lincoln to see if he can come pick her up at her apartment, she drops Maisie off at the restaurant where Lincoln works, and waves goodbye to her daughter, doesn’t even give her daughter a cell phone with emergency numbers on it, no backpack of her belongings, not even any form of identification. Except that night was Lincoln’s night off and no one could reach him on his phone. Maisie falls asleep at the restaurant and is brought to the home of another waitress to spend the night. Maisie wakes up in the middle of the night in a stranger’s home with a large and imposing man there and they appear to be smoking pot, she finally breaks down and sheds a tear. It’s the first time she cried in the whole movie. Thankfully, Margo was there by morning to collect Maisie.

Because Susanna and Beale are wealthy residents of New York City, and as a result of their wealth and status – the people around them protected them from authorities. If a poor Latino or black mother dropped of her child at her ex-husband’s work while he wasn’t there and left them there, you can be positive that she will be arrested and charged with child neglect or child abandonments (as she should). Her child will enter the foster care system and it would be a very long time before they can be reunited. Susanna and Beale and by extension Margo and Lincoln are protected from criminal prosecution because of their race, wealth and status. While Kramer v. Kramer provided a sympathetic bent to Ted and Joanna and made these two flawed humans and ultimately desiring to be a loving parent to little Billy. What Maisie Knew doesn’t even bother with what kind of parents Susanna and Beale could have been if circumstances were different, they are just shitty people and even shittier parents. If it weren’t for their wealth and social status (musician and art dealer), they’d be exposed as the nasty people they are.

This is not a case where Susanna feels trapped by motherhood, she isn’t. Before her divorce, Margo was hired as a full time nanny to Maisie. She was able to work, tour and throw loud and inappropriate parties in her home after her child goes to bed. Her husband Beale didn’t really care what she did. It’s unclear what their arguments are about. They usually take place off camera where Susanna shouts in background “asshole”, “loser”, “there you go walking away again”, “coward”. There are no indications of infidelity or anything else. Whereas Joanna Kramer used her time away to improve herself and become a better person and mother, Susanna has no such concerns. She doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with her temper or how her behavior affects her child. The same goes for her husband Beale. He provides for Maisie financially, does the superficial ‘good dad’ act and to him, that’s good enough. Susanna wants to be seen as a good and caring mother, but doesn’t want to put in the effort to actually become one. And on top of that, she resents anyone who gets close to her daughter, as it points out her failings as a mother.

In the end, Beale is never heard from again, Susanna goes back on tour, attempts to come back and get her daughter to go on tour with her, but her daughter refuses to go, and is visibly scared of her mother’s bad temper. By this time Margo and Lincoln have gotten together romantically and is staying at a beach house belonging to Margot’s cousin, they have Maisie living with them and Maisie is seen finally having the carefree, stress free childhood she deserves, with her designated caretakers by her waste-of-space parents. But make no mistake this is not a happy ending. Maisie doesn’t need two loving and capable surrogate parents, Maisie needs her own parents to step up to the plate and be there for her. No one can replace her parents, even as narcissistic as they are. Maisie is only six years old in the film, the trauma that she experienced with her parents divorce will manifest itself in many ways in the years to come.

Whereas Kramer v. Kramer gave a biased view of Joanna Kramer as the ‘villain’ of the film, What Maisie Knew gave a pretty even handed dealing of Susanna and Beale. They were both awful in their own ways. On the face of it, Susanna seems worse than Beale because of her foul temper and dirty mouth, but upon closer examination, Beale is no better himself. He is the sneering contemptible Englishman personified. His ‘good manners’ covers up a person who is rotten to the core, he only thinks of himself, Maisie and her needs are an after thought.

Breaking Bad: Heisenberg 

Breaking Bad is a show about the drug trade and the drug war parallel alongside it but it’s really a show about criminal capitalism. The unchecked, unfettered, ‘invisible hand’, Adam Smith style, free market which knows all and dictates all type of capitalism. There are no laws which should interfere with capitalism, it should be allowed to do as it pleases because if you interfere with it, bad things can happen. There’s no better way to demonstrate that than with the illegal but unfettered drug trade. The underground illegal drug trade, which requires the organization, knowledge and skill set of running a Fortune 500 company is the best way to demonstrate capitalism. A Fortune 500 company has to deal with legalities, the SEC and ‘rules’ – even if they are routinely broken, but to appear legit, rules appear to be followed. Walter White doesn’t see himself as a drug dealer, or a drug manufacturer he sees himself as creating an empire, a legacy, not even for his children, but for himself, to satisfy his own ego. What started out as a panic to raise enough funds for cancer treatment and provide for his family in the event of his death, became a desire to satisfy the unfulfilled ambitions of his youth. The youthful pride that forced him to walk away from Gray Matter is what got in the way of his empire dreams, he should have forced Elliot and Gretchen out, he won’t make that same mistake again at fifty. He replaced his pride with ego, which is where he should have operated from in his twenties. His pride got in the way, his ego will now find the way.

When Walter was a graduate student at MIT, he and two other people founded a company called Gray Matter, Gretchen and Elliot Stern. Gretchen was a former girlfriend of his, Elliot was his best friend. Though the reasons were unspecific, according to Gretchen, Walter just woke up one day and packed his stuff and left. But it appeared as if she was sleeping with his best friend (Elliot) type of scenario – after all, they did marry. He left her and the company they founded. The company was founded on a lot of the research Walter worked on, he was the real brains behind it, but he chose to leave it and accepted a $5000 buyout as that time the company was in its founding stages and worth nothing. The company now is worth $2.12 billion, he checks it every week he tells Jesse, his friends are rich beyond their wildest imagination. Walter had no share in it. He is still seething from that. And he’s using his blue meth formula to create a new empire and exact his revenge. It didn’t matter to Walter that Gray Matter is legal and ‘Heisenberg’ isn’t. Legality is arbitrary – alcohol (another kind of poison and causes one to have an altered state) is legal, so the fact that meth isn’t legal, is just law enforcement BS. Walter had no moral qualms about supplying people poison to smoke, snort or inject. Addicts are addicts and they’ll get their drugs from anywhere, so why not me. My product is consistent, it’s good and achieves the desired results the meth heads want. Walter spent over 20 years eking out a living as a high school teacher, making $43,000 a year when he should have been a millionaire – he cannot go to his grave without redressing this injustice. The bodies that pile up along the way is just collateral damage.

“Heisenberg” is code name for Walter White. It’s the name he uses when he is appearing as the Albuquerque drug kingpin. The practice is common. Drug dealers of all levels have at one time or another, use nicknames to avoid being identified by law enforcement. The nicknames they choose is usually a childhood nickname that is not widely known with no identifying features. Walter White chose Heisenberg, who by the way was Werner Heisenberg, a Nobel Prize winning physicist in Germany who served in the Third Reich. Though he was never brought up on war crimes, he had to belong to Nazi Party in order to remain employed in Germany’s educational institutions.

The name choice is clever. It is obscure, not many people will know who the real Heisenberg is unless they are an advanced scientist or they go and look it up. Secondly, whoever chose this name is obviously a white man and wants it be known that he is a white man. This name choice also reveals Walter’s ego and how he thinks of himself, a Nobel Prize worthy scientist who never got the chance to showcase his brilliance. Heisenberg is not some low level or even cartel level drug dealer like a ‘Tuco’ or a ‘Combo’ or a ‘Badger’ or  a ‘Skinny Pete’ or even the more mafia-like Don Eladio. Walter White is not any of these people, he is highly intelligent, educated at the most elite institution chemist, he is not just some random meth cook. He is the best meth cook who came up with his own formula. The fact that he chose a Nazi era scientist with a distinctly German name reveals his latent fascism and contempt for those who are his intellectual inferiors. The meth trade is a legitimate business to Heisenberg, worthy of being “listed on the Nasdaq”. Though he cooked tens of thousands of pounds of meth, he never once tried it or had the desire to try it. That’s not entirely surprising since he knows all of the chemicals that go into that dreck and the user is basically smoking or snorting poison. The “blue meth” which Walter cooks, had it not been an illegal substance, he would have patented that formula and make billions from it legally. Besides never trying the blue meth he created, he is contemptuous of addicts themselves, the exact people who he is selling it to. Walter’s biggest problem with Jesse Pinkman, well, besides Jesse Pinkman himself, is that he uses drugs and to Walter, it’s a weakness. It’s what gets guys in their line of work in trouble. Gus Fring, the North American distributor of blue meth says “You can never trust a drug addict.”

Death is a looming reality for Walter. The only factor is the manner and time of death. Will he die from cancer, which in his case would be a natural death or will he die as a result of the meth trade. He is fully prepared to be taken by cancer, but as he gets deeper into the drug trade, it’s apparent that he doesn’t want to die at the hands of his adversaries. That would be a sign of weakness. Since Season 3, Walter’s cancer has been in remission. His chemotherapy and radiation treatment had been a success and his tumors have shrunk by 80%, and they were able to remove more of the tumor with surgery. Walter, in the foreseeable future, will live. He will never be cured of cancer, he’ll eventually die from cancer some day but not in the next 6-8 months like they originally thought. Instead of being delighted at this news, Walter was angry. It meant that he did all of that illegal stuff for nothing. In the perfect plan which exists in his head, he was to hear that the chemotherapy and radiation didn’t work, and on his deathbed he is to inform his wife that he had found a way to take care of them and how he got that money. By then, it won’t matter how he got it, because he will die and his wife will take care to not let others know about the drug money.

But God had other plans. He did get well, he will live and it’s long enough to get himself in serious trouble with the law if he wasn’t careful. Walter White the part time criminal, the chemistry teacher cum meth cook is to transform into the biggest, baddest meth cook and distributor Albuquerque has ever seen.

In season 5, Walter White ripped off the good guy mask. From seasons 1 through 4, Walter, at least from time to time, felt remorse at the upset he caused his wife, his son, to Jesse and felt the need to apologize for his actions. Ever since killed Gus Fring without being detected, he grew emboldened. Walter White, the former high school chemistry teacher and law abiding citizen, only existed on paper, he became Heisenberg full time. He didn’t bother to hide his evil behind a veil of maintaining a good front, there was no more ‘I am sorry but this had to happen’. It became, ‘I made it happen because I want it to happen’ – “I run things” is what he often says. In the last season is where it also ties up all the loose ends of his life story.

Towards the end is when the bodies really begin to pile (unnecessarily) up at the hands of Heisenberg. When Walter successfully killed Gus Fring, he became emboldened and he decided to go after all of Gus Fring’s associates and his would be adversaries. His verbal threats went from a polite ‘I’ll tell the DEA who the real Captain Cook is if you don’t agree to work with me – so please don’t make me do this’ to the direct “you work for me and you are done when I say you are done”. The only person he bothers with niceties is his wife Skylar, because she’s doing the washing of the drug money and perhaps there’s some real affection there. Skylar had many chances to spill his secret but she chose not to because Walter will die sooner or later, if not from cancer, then it’s from being shot and dumped in a ditch somewhere. Walter Jr adores his father, she didn’t have the heart to let Walter Jr know that his father is a drug dealer. She also had a real legitimate concern of taking care of her family in the event of his death and it’s best to deal with the situation and wash the money than worry about the morality and legality of it all. What’s done is done, and if Walter were to get locked up and all that money confiscated, she’d be homeless with two children, one with special needs and another just an infant. Hank and Marie will unlikely take them in if they find out Skylar knew all this time and didn’t report Walter. She is also an accessory after the crime. It’s best that she covers it up as best she can and hope nature takes its course with Walter sooner rather than later – probably not the ending she imagined as she walked up the aisle to greet her future husband.

Walter White reveals himself to be pure evil. In two years time, he committed crimes which would probably take a career criminal his whole life to complete. Killing people when they get in the way became a matter of routine, not really a situation to anguish over. He is a dying man, in every sense of the word. Since he chose the fuck-it list and not the bucket list to live out his last days, he felt no compunction to behave ethically or morally. People with nothing to lose and nothing to live for are very dangerous.

Breaking Bad first aired in 2008, at the height of the recession. This show is about unchecked criminal capitalism. The drug trade is an allegory for capitalism, Wall Street and its players. They foreclosed on Americans, but lined their own pockets. They had golden parachutes when millions of people lost their jobs and lost their pensions to Wall Street. Many of those people will never be able to recover their fortunes. Politicians hide behind capitalism and carry out their agendas to line the pockets of the rich. Unrestrained capitalism has been touted as the way to prosperity and stability. That is a lie. Capitalism has created two classes of people, the haves and the have-nots and political and economic instability in many parts of the world. Capitalism is where criminals go to hide in plain sight.

 

Breaking Bad: Hank Schrader 

Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) is an unknowing antagonist to Walter White. He is a ball busting DEA agent specializing in meth busts in the greater Albuquerque area. He is your typical law enforcement stereotype: white, loud, uncouth, crass, zero intelligence beyond his field of discipline, a buffoon, racist, sexist and misogynist, he abuses the power of his gun and badge to its fullest and without regret or remorse – “I am just doing my job”, a favorite refrain from abusive law enforcement officers. He also happens to be Walter White’s brother-in-law, he is Marie’s husband (Skylar’s sister). These two families are close, they often socialize together on weekends. Hank has done well for himself in his career as a DEA agent. He has his own corner office and is often asked to lead task forces. They also live in a much nicer house in a much nicer part of town than the Whites. Hank and Marie do not have children so all of their disposable income goes to indulge their individual hobbies. Hank loves to micro-brew beer at home and Marie loves to shop (though she’s a secret kleptomaniac as well). In his down time, Hank is a loyal husband (despite his bluster and references to women’s private parts), a dedicated uncle to Walter Jr and an all around nice family man. He has gone out of his way to help the Whites many times, though not all of his efforts is appreciated by Walter.

Hank is good at his job. He loves his job. It’s unclear if he loves it because he feels a moral duty to remove drugs and drug dealers and distributors from the streets or he loves it because he gets to legally exercise his racism and sexism to people who have no choice but to take the abuse from him. Hank has many confidential informants on the ground and while they provide valuable intel for him to do his work, he speaks of them with contempt, full of racist diatribes never a word of thanks or appreciation. He treats them even worse, he doesn’t even give them the respect you’d give another human being regardless of what they did for a living. As each one of them gets killed for being snitches or as a matter of course for their chosen career, he never feels bad for them, he even celebrates their death “one more scumbag off the streets”, even after these people contributed to his career. Outside of his family, he is a thoroughly deplorable human being. His family either doesn’t see this about him or overlooks it, except for Walter. His family sees him as a local hero, fighting everyday to keep drugs off the streets. One gets the sense that Walter never liked the guy, even before he began cooking meth. Walter sees Hank as his intellectual inferior, attention seeking for his antics – unseemly for a grown man in his forties. But on the surface, Walter maintains a friendly and respectful facade and he sees that Hank is very good to Walter Jr.

The only thing in Walter’s favor is Hank’s tunnel vision, he only sees Walter as a harmless high school chemistry teacher, who is suffering from cancer and has financial problems; totally uninitiated with the dirty business of the meth trade and the means streets it’s associated with. Walter is reticent where Hank is full of blowhard bluster. Walter’s reticence makes him appear tame, harmless and ignorant in the ways of the world outside of the classroom. Hank also respects Walter for his position as an educator and knows Walter is all around smarter than he. If Walter White didn’t become a drug kingpin,  there would be no reason for Hank and Walter to get into any sort of confrontation. Walter may dislike Hank but he’s always kept it cordial.

Breaking Bad ran for five seasons, it is only until the end of season 4 does Hank figure out Walter White is ‘Heisenberg’ (a code name he created for himself). Partly is because Walter is very good at covering his tracks, the second part is Hank never for one second, in his wildest dreams imagined that his brother-in-law, Walter White, a quiet mild mannered high school chemistry teacher is Heisenberg, the guy who cooks the best and purest meth in town. Hank’s inability to think outside of the his self-prescribed box, never looked where no one went looking. Walter White used this weakness to his advantage.

Ironically, Walter White and Hank Schrader have something in common when they both were in dire need of medical care, they both had inadequate insurance to give them the best care. When Hank was nearly killed when two cartel men came for him for shooting Tuco Salamanca, in order to recover the mobility of his legs he needed highly specialized physical therapy which his insurance (paid for by the DEA) didn’t cover. His wife Marie was insistent that they get the best care even if they were to drain all their savings. Also, during the time when the shooting happened, Hank was suspended without pay from his job for assaulting Jesse Pinkman without just cause. If they drained their savings helping Hank recover, they would be in very serious financial straits. Ironically, it was Walter (through the insistence of Skylar) who came to his rescue. Walter paid for all of Hank’s out of pocket expenses. Skylar concocted a story to Marie that Walter got all of that money from illegal gambling, he figured out how to count cards and that it was a secret. No one knew about it, not even Walter Jr and Marie was sworn to secrecy. Marie bought the story and Hank’s medical bills were paid with drug money. Walter had just indirectly made Hank accessory after the fact. So even if Hank came for him later, he wouldn’t be totally in the clear. There would be unclean hands on the part of Hank. The credit must go to Skylar for this one, the more people she contaminates with Walter’s drug money, the less likely they’ll get in serious trouble for it.

On the other hand, for all of Hank’s bluster, deep down, he is very fearful of the job he does. He could end up dead in a shootout with the cartels but in order to “get to DC”, the peak of this profession, he must take on these dangerous task force assignments to prove himself. He must lead major drug busts and catch major players, which is why he is so obsessed with finding Heisenberg. Hank has been in two deadly shootouts before he was seriously injured. The first is a two man shoot out with Tuco Salamanca, which Hank narrowly escaped with his life after he killed Tuco. The second was when he joined a task force with the El Paso DEA office and they were patrolling the Mexican border and a shootout was engaged between DEA and the cartels, several officers were killed, again Hank barely escaped with his life. Hank was finding out he perhaps didn’t have the stomach for the brutal and cruel antics of the Mexican cartels, he begun to have panic attacks but he didn’t want anyone to know. The third incident which nearly paralyzed him was when Tuco Salamanca’s cousins came to kill Hank to avenge Tuco’s death.

Walter’s feelings towards Hank may be complicated prior to his meth cooking days, but after he begun to cook meth – it became a game of mental chess of always keeping two steps ahead of Hank, which isn’t that hard for Walter to do. Whatever Walter lacks in physical brawn and good health, he’s made up for it with intelligence, calculation and the ability to do great evil if necessary to save himself or his family. In the end, Hank does die, in an incident which relates to Walter, but Walter tried to save his life by begging the gunman to not shoot Hank. So, for whatever reason, perhaps Hank’s many kindnesses to Skylar and Walter Jr, he felt Hank’s life should be spared.

The audience shouldn’t feel too much sadness at the death of Hank in Season 5. Had he been a nicer or more compassionate cop, it may have been easier to feel some sympathy. Hank represented the worst things about the War on Drugs. Of all the arrests he made all the people he abused with his badge and gun, he never once stopped to think why they were in the predicament they were in, he treated them like gutter rats and had no problem telling them so. However, his sole redemptive moment may have been when he got into trouble for beating Jesse Pinkman to a pulp, instead of fighting the charges, he took responsibility for his actions and was willing to accept the consequences. In a reflective moment, he thought of all the ‘rules’ he’d broken throughout his law enforcement career and the suspension without pay, his panic attacks and anxiety was perhaps all of his chickens coming home to roost. However, Hank dying at the hands of Walter White is a cruel blow of fate because of all the people Hank was horrible to, Walter White wasn’t one of them. He’d been nothing but a good brother-in-law to the Whites.

Breaking Bad: Jesse Pinkman

If Walter White is a natural born criminal who didn’t find his true calling until he was fifty years old, then Jesse Pinkman is the exact opposite of a natural criminal. He’s more than the opposite of a criminal, he’s completely unsuited to be any kind of criminal, big time or small time. Whereas Walter White has a heart of stone and stomach of steel to do the necessary but immoral, just the mere thought of physically threatening or hurting someone makes Jesse Pinkman nervous. Jesse’s brain is made of jelly and has no stomach for the life of a criminal or outlaw. He is your typical rich white kid who’s seen too many mob movies and thinks the whole ‘lifestyle’ is one big game of drugs, booze, cash and women at his beck and call.

Jesse Pinkman is only fit to do one thing and that is to follow the life of privilege his parents prescribed for him. He is of average intelligence and like all privileged white boys, he takes everything for granted and nothing seriously. He lacks basic common sense and reasoning skills and it stems more from lack of trying rather than from lack of aptitude. He is impulsive and compulsive. He acts before he thinks and he is terrible under pressure. Not a good combination for someone who wishes to live the life of an outlaw or criminal. Besides being terrible under pressure, he is also useless in the face of adversity. Any setback large or small will send him into bed with a pipe where he is out of commission for days at a time. When a junkie couple owed them money, he went to their dilapidated pig pen to collect money and when a stolen ATM machine fell on the guy and cracked open his skull; Jesse took to his bed and got high, saying the sound of his brains splattering on the ground gave him trauma. One of his dealers got shot by rival dealers because he encroached on their territory, that dealer being a good friend of his, he took to his bed again, this time high on heroin supplied by his girlfriend. Granted, these are very traumatic events, but it’s part and parcel of the life he chose.

The best course of action for him would be to graduate from high school, keep his nose clean since he’s got no aptitude nor stomach for shenanigans legal or illegal, and attend college, preferably at one of his parent’s endowments and obtain some benign but useless degree like business management, finance or marketing and after graduation go work for his father or one of his father’s associates. It was the life that his parents wanted for him, but he had other plans.

Jesse is a bitter disappointment to his parents. In season 1, when he stumbles into his parent’s backyard after one harrowing and frightening day in the life of a drug dealer, it was expressed that they’ve given him more than enough chances to clean up and make an honest living. He had run out of chances with them and he is not to be accepted back into the fold until he truly cleans up and go straight. They let him stay a few days there, he was on good behavior, he didn’t use drugs. He attempted to bond with his much younger brother who is only in middle school. That Jesse’s parents, who now put all their hopes, aspirations, attention and love on his younger brother is not lost on him. It hurts him deeply that his parents have written him off, but then he lacks the initiative or dedication to turn his life around. He wants his parents to love him and accept him as he is now, he wants his cake and eat it too. Though he uses drugs copiously and often, he’s not at the stage of an inveterate junkie, he’s capable of going for days without using drugs. In one telling scene, where the Pinkman’s maid while cleaning Jesse’s bedroom, found an unsmoked joint of marijuana in his bedroom. The maid alerts Jesse’s parents, Jesse is promptly ejected from his parent’s home and told to never return. It is revealed that while he was outside waiting for his taxi to arrive, his younger brother came outside to say goodbye to him and thanked him for taking the fall for him. His younger brother planted the marijuana joint in his bedroom knowing the maid would find it and tell his parents. It’s unsure what his younger brother’s motivation was, maybe he wants to be the center of attention of his parents and wanted his older brother out of the way. Either way, the Pinkman’s younger golden boy is not so golden or perfect. Jesse took this on the chin and left his parents house with sadness in his heart, mostly towards his little brother, with whom he thought he was close.

When Walter White found Jesse, he was on the verge of quitting the meth business, but Walter White drew him back in with blackmail. Jesse was at that crucial time where his window of turning his life around is disappearing. If he continues down this path, he’ll mostly remain a criminal and as someone who lives outside of the law. While he still can turn things around, he is pushing thirty, and to start at the bottom of the legitimate employment sector, without a college degree, earning minimum wage flipping for sale signs at the side of road isn’t something he can countenance after he’s made so much cash so easily.

According to Walter, Jesse’s greatest flaws are he “never learned to think”, does not have the fundamental “rudimentary skills to follow basic instructions” – as evidenced by the dead body crashing through the second floor of his home because the body dissolving acid he used will eat through the bathtub, drywall, wood, nails, everything but not plastic. Jesse, in his typical knucklehead manner, assumed that if a plastic container can dissolve that body, then it must alright for a ceramic bathtub too. This was only the beginning. There was the time where he left the keys of the camper in the ignition in the middle of the New Mexico desert and then draining the battery. When they attempted to jump the battery with the generator, he got gasoline  on the outside of the generator where it promptly blew up while he was trying to start it, and the cherry on top – Jesse put out the fire with the only fresh drinking water they had left when there was a fire extinguisher. They could have died in the desert if not for Walter White’s near genius chemical mixing skills.

Because Jesse has been cast out by his family, he inadvertently sees Walter as his surrogate father. He still addresses Walter as “Mr. White” even though he is no longer his high school chemistry teacher. He wants very much to impress Walter and he’s craving a “good job” or a “well done” from Walter. And Walter wants to give him that validation he craves, but Jesse, for lack of a better word, is just too stupid at times to see the error of his own ways. Every time a Jesse related mishap happens, he never takes responsibility for it, he always blames Walter, the weather, his dead aunt, everyone and their grandma except the man in the mirror. Another classic trait of a overprivileged white boy.

But Jesse’s greatest flaw isn’t his own stupidity, his greatest flaw in relation to the line of work he’s chosen is his natural and inherent kindness. The truth is he can’t hurt a fly. He has a soft spot for children, he sees his little brother in them. He took care of his ailing aunt while she was dying from lung cancer, lived with her at her house until she died. To repay him, she let him live in her house rent free, the same house where a dead body fell through from the top floor. This boy is in the wrong line of work mixing with the wrong kind of people. The type of dealers he hires and associates with are the nice dealers, ones who aren’t capable of being ruthless, similar to himself. To be a drug dealer, you can’t afford to be nice or you’ll be worked over. Jesse never got this memo, and if a few ounces or even a pound is missing from the profits, he’s willing to look the other way than to go hunt down the missing loot – much to the ire of Walter.

Walter’s relationship with his own son Walter Jr is more complicated. Walter Jr was born with cerebral palsy. He needs crutches to get around, has a very mild almost undetectable speech impediment, but has no cognitive or intellectual impairments. Walter Jr, with the loving devotion of his mother and father lives a very independent life. He has friends and a social life and is well loved by everyone. But you can tell Walter treats his son with kid gloves. He loves his son very much but because of his physical vulnerabilities, he holds back in treating him as though he would treat a child who had no special needs. He never really challenges Walter Jr the same way as he challenges Jesse. He never busts the chops of Walter Jr like he does to Jesse. When Walter Jr makes a mistake, he doesn’t take him to task on it, he kind of nods and smiles and pats him on the back. Walter never shared his passion in chemistry with his son. He never ‘showed’ his son what he was good at, like many fathers love to show their sons what their passions and hobbies are. There is a distance there. With Jesse, you can see Walter letting loose his masculinity in a way he wouldn’t at home. Though he has a fully red blooded fifteen year old teenage boy in the house, Walter acts as though he lives in a houseful of women. In one respect, Walter is glad his actual son isn’t Jesse, but he has a relationship with Jesse that he doesn’t have with his son. Walter Jr is very much like his father in character (the good bits), he is deliberate and methodical, smart, he is well mannered, respectful to his parents and elders and well behaved, nothing like the entitled and spoiled Jesse.

For all of Jesse’s failings, one might wonder why a highly intelligent, methodical and ruthless man would want anything to do with an imbecile like Jesse as equal partners, especially in such a high risk business like narcotics distribution. Ironically, the reason lay in his weaknesses. Walter can “trust” Jesse and that is because Jesse is sentimental and fundamentally a kind person, for all of his faults he’s never endangered Walter’s personal safety (well, the desert incident notwithstanding). And secondly, Jesse does what Walter tells him to do because Jesse is weak willed, eager to please a father figure and just all around obtuse and in need of being led.

Breaking Bad: Walter White 

When a man finds out he’s terminally ill and has got a very short time left, many things can happen. He can fulfill his bucket list like Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman did in the movie The Bucket List and attain some form of enlightenment and self-actualization or he can do the opposite and make a fuck-it list. Fuck society and its rules, fuck law enforcement, fuck convention, fuck ‘doing the right thing’ like his mom and dad taught him to do. Fuck everyone and everything who once stood in his way. He’s going to go out his way, guns a blazing, even if it destroys everyone in his path. 

This is the dilemma of Walter White (Brayn Cranston), a suburban high school chemistry teacher from Albuquerque, New Mexcico, who got diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer (Stage 3A) and his prognosis is treatable but not curable. His salary as a chemistry teacher is not enough to cover their expenses and he’s taken on a second job at a local carwash to supplement his income. He has a teenage son with special needs, Walter Jr., who attends the same high school he teaches at, and after a long wait, his wife Skylar is expecting a little girl in a few months. It is in the midst of all of this, after he collapses at the carwash job, he finds out he has terminal lung cancer. The insurance he has through his teaching job is a HMO plan and is inadequate for the cancer treatments he will need. All of the good oncologists in town do not accept HMO and he would basically have to pay out of pocket for all of the chemotherapy and radiation treatments. The alternative would be to accept whatever substandard treatment plan that would be approved by his HMO. 

His family rally around him and offer him any support he may need, but they do not have the one thing he needs the most, which is money for the treatments. For the first time Walter White is truly vulnerable. His wife Skylar doesn’t work and she’s unable to go back to work until after her baby is born. He begins to plan his next move, whether to go through with cancer treatment or not. They could borrow money and go into severe debt and only for him to die and leave his wife, son and baby daughter destitute. There are no good options for Walter. His family wants him to undertake cancer treatments but he is unsure. 

Walter White’s brother-in-law Hank Schrader (the husband of Skylar’s sister Marie) is a DEA officer who regularly makes crystal methamphetamine busts, confiscating hoards of unsold drugs and cash. Usually bundles of 100 notes just lying around in some cook house. Hank, is a stereotypical drug enforcement officer; he is a blowhard, show off, racist and sexist all rolled into one. Sexist and racist jokes roll off his tongue, in front of his wife, other women, his nephew Walter Jr., even in front of his Latino partner. He does it all with a big guffaw and wink. He justifies his views as experiences acquired from his many years on the job. Hispanics in Albuquerque are almost all drug dealers, hag-faced middle age white women are meth-hookers, white people deal and smoke pot, and blacks don’t feature at all in his part of town. When Hank meets someone, he immediately susses them out to see if they criminals or law abiding citizens and because his views of each category are so narrow, he often misses the obvious signs. His in-laws barely tolerate him and they only do so because of familial affection and his position in law enforcement. He’s not someone they want to piss off, he will use the power of his badge to get his way. Because Hank likes to show off, he often offers his family and friends to ride along with him when he’s making a bust. Hank offered to take Walter White on busts but Walter always turned him down, saying that it’s not his thing. When Walter caught on the evening news one night how much cash was confiscated from a meth-lab (cook house), he decided to accept his brother-in-laws offer to go on a ride along to get a closer look on how a meth-lab works.

The character of Walter White is a character of contradictions. On the outside, he couldn’t have been more ordinary. He is a middle aged man (just turned 50), white, high school chemistry teacher in the Albuquerque suburbs. He is a devoted father and loving husband. Their son has special needs but with their loving devotion and care, Walter Jr. is on his way to living an independent life.  He is a good teacher, has a lot of passion in the subject he teaches; the inadequate salary aside, he very much enjoys teaching and is the head of the school’s science department. His appearance is unremarkable and nondescript, one probably couldn’t pick him out of a lineup. Where as Hank is full of bluster and seeks to show off and dominate every conversation he’s participating in, Walter White is the opposite. Walter is quiet, erudite, nerdy but not just in the sciences; he’s a well read man and has no desire to show it off but wouldn’t hesitate to set someone straight either if they get their ‘facts’ wrong. He wouldn’t be described as ugly in appearance but he’s definitely not handsome. His face is lined with years of financial struggle and hardship. He has bore the hardships of life which was wrought upon him with grace and a sort of silent courage. Though a gifted chemistry teacher, he’s had to take on a second minimum wage job just to cover their expenses, which is a deeply undignified thing, he took it in his stride. Until he found out he was terminally ill. 

The wiseman always warns us of the quiet ones. What appears to be his quiet dignity reveals itself to be hateful brooding. Brooding at fifty plus years of the Great Unfairness of Life which was doled out to him by the unforgiving Universe. When he was well, he had the motivation to remain an upright and law abiding citizen, for he might lose what little they have. But when he found out he was ill, and as a result of his illness and the inadequate nest egg which his job has left him, he decided to take action. His family will not be broke and depend on the charity and largess of family and friends to survive after he’s gone. And more importantly, while he is alive, he will not allow himself to become a charity case and a subject of pity. This would be one indignity too many. Which is why even when a graduate school friend of his who struck it rich and is a millionaire offered to hire him and give him excellent benefits and pay for all of his out of pocket expenses for his treatments, he flat out refused and raged at Skylar for divulging his illness without his prior approval.

Walter White chose the fuck-it list. The ride along he accepted from Hank turns out they were looking for a meth cooker called ‘Captain Cook’, which through Walter’s skills of deduction he discovers it was a former student of his called Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), who was not caught during the DEA raid, he was hiding next door. Jesse Pinkman is a flunkie, in school and in life. Though Jesse came from a very wealthy family and could have access to the best of everything to help him succeed, he chose the life of a criminal. He is a moderately successful meth cooker and dealer. But this last raid, he lost his cooking partner and all of their drugs, cash and equipment. He has to start over again, he took it as his sign to quit the meth business and go straight, until Walter White went to find him. Walter’s first exchange with Jesse reveals the depth of Walter’s ease with the world of criminals. He blackmails Jesse into partnering with him to cook meth or else he’ll tell his brother-in-law, a DEA officer the real identity of ‘Captain Cook’. Just earlier, he was a socially reticent and klutzy chemistry teacher, and now he’s threatening an experienced criminal with exposure. 

Walter’s proposal to Jesse is simple and straightforward. Walter is a chemist, he knows how to cook the best crystal meth there is, and it’s Jesse’s job to go sell it. It’s first and foremost a business operation. Walter White is to deliver a product that is good, reliable and consistent every time. It will be a clean operation where no one gets hurt or killed. It will be a two man operation and Jesse is the face of the operation, Walter White is to stay behind the scenes as the cooker. Before they could even sell the first batch of crystal meth, Jesse the inverterate flunkie opened his big mouth about the identity of Walter White and even brought two mid-level Mexican cartel contacts to their cook site. They barely escape with their lives. Walter realized the drug business was anything but clean or clear cut. It was also his first test to see if he can stomach the business. When it became apparent that both of the Mexican cartel contacts needed to be killed, it tested Walter’s mettle, if he can do the deed if it became necessary. We find out not even halfway into season 1, he can. When it came to the survival of himself and his family versus morality, he chose himself. And the choice wasn’t as difficult as he imagined it would be. It was also fortuitous that the person he killed was a confidential information to Hank, so if that person had lived, Walter White’s secret life would have been blown. 

Before season 1 ended, due to his chemotherapy treatment, he begun losing his hair, so he decided to shave his head bald, thereby giving him that menacing look which graces all of the Breaking Bad posters and billboards. The shaving of his hair is symbolic. He’s let go of his previous life as an honest and hardworking chemistry teacher; he’s now Walter White, an emerging drug kingpin of Albuquerque, New Mexico who cooks the best meth in town. Walter tries to convince himself (and the audience) that he’s doing this for his family and that this is the only way he can make enough money quick enough pay for his cancer treatments and leave enough for his family when he’s gone. But he knows and as well as the audience knows that it’s just a convenient excuse. He enjoys this line of work way too much. It came too naturally to him. This hard edged criminal side of him was just dormant. When he goes to confront Tuco, another Mexican drug cartel distributor, for stealing their drugs; Walter goes into Tuco’s den, with what appears to be crystal meth, except it’s not, it’s an explosive. He first asked Tuco politely to hand over $50,000 for the drugs they stole and recompense for beating Jesse to a pulp. As expected, Tuco laughs in his face, Walter detonates the explosive in front of Tuco. No one was seriously harmed but it got the respect of Tuco and they were in business. And Tuco paid up.

This exchange also highlighted the widely assumed cultural and class differences between the educated white middle class and uneducated but full of brawn and muscle working class Hispanics. White people think their way out of problems, while Latinos punch their way out of them. Jesse may have been beaten to a pulp by Tuco at first for demanding upfront payment for their drugs, but Walter went back there with a plan and a disguised weapon (explosives disguised as crystal meth) and got even plus some more. The message is clear. Brains always win. Logical thinking and application of linear processes (which can only be learned in school) as taught by the scientific disciplines will outgun the muscle. Even though Jesse is a flunkie, he comes from a privileged background and with it a certain amount of inherited arrogance and swagger. Walter White can’t stand Jesse but still comes to his aid and got him an extra $15,000 for getting beaten for trying to get payment for their drugs upfront. 

Knowing what we know about Walter White now, it’s hard to know if he did it out of kindness to Jesse, or it’s self-interest to preserve the goodwill in the partnership or a combination of both. But it’s safe to say, the altruistic Walter White has died, if he ever existed at all. 

It can only get worse with Season 2 and onwards. 

Nora Ephron: Everything is Copy (2016)

[He was] “capable of having sex with a Venetian blind”. -Heartburn

Boom. Just when you think there could be no worse insult to a philandering man who is indiscriminate with his sexual conquests than “he’ll screw anything that moves”, Nora Ephron comes up with a better zinger, being “capable of having sex with a Venetian blind”. A Venetian blind doesn’t move unless you make it, which conjures up an image which is wholly unflattering.

Every time I read a Nora Ephron essay, book or watch one of her movies and I see or hear a witty line she created, I have two reactions. The first is to laugh, out loud, always, without fail. The second is ‘why didn’t I write that myself.’ Nothing proves that point more than the Venetian blind allegory. While Woody Allen can at times be too neurotic and self-indulgent in his phobias and hypochondria, Nora Ephron rarely crossed that line from witty observation to self-indulgent narcissism.

Everything is Copy is directed by her son Jacob Bernstein, who interviews all the important people in his mother’s life and got their input and insight on a woman who put all her stuff out there for public consumption but when it came to her final battle, her illness with leukemia, it was kept a secret until her final breath was drawn. This is in direct contradiction to her life’s mantra, passed down by her mother, Phoebe Ephron: “Everything is Copy”. Everything. You fall down face first in the middle of a fancy restaurant on a date in your ball gown and high heels with your legs splayed out barely risking your modesty? No problem, write about it. You tell the joke the way you want it to be told. You become the heroine of the joke and not its victim. This was her life’s philosophy outside of her writing career. You control your destiny by the way you choose to tell your story.

My mother wanted us to understand that the tragedies of your life one day have the potential to be comic stories the next. – Nora Ephron

Her mother was from the generation which it made your life more bearable if you convert the tragedies in comedies. To understand Nora Ephron, one must understand the family whence she came. Nora Ephron was the eldest of four girls to Harry and Phoebe Ephron. Phoebe Ephron was one of the first women to consistently work as a screenwriter in Hollywood. According to Nora, she “had it all” before the phrase “having it all” was invented. Her mother was an intellectual, smart, funny, witty, an equal writing partner to their father, she raised children (with help – that was the whole point of becoming successful according to the acerbic Phoebe), she had a successful screenwriting career and earned good money. A rare feat in the 1940s and ’50s. And for Phoebe Ephron, she took “everything is copy” literally and she was dead serious about it. Your mother is drunk and fell down the stairs, use it. Your parents went from successful Hollywood screenwriters to being reclusive alcoholics – it’s perfectly good copy, use it. “Pick over the carcass” she’d tell her daughters.

One of Nora’s sisters Hallie Ephron recalled a story from her childhood: she really liked a mother of one of her friends, because her mother worked, she assumed everyone’s mother worked, so she asked her mother, “what does Mrs. _____ do?” Her mother’s response? “She does her nails.” And whoosh, in one fell swoop, Phoebe Ephron wiped the floors with that poor woman whose only crime was to not have a profession outside of the home. Nora’s other sister and often her writing partner Delia Ephron recalled the love story of their parents. After the first date, when Harry Ephron proposed marriage to Phoebe, her response was “let me read your work first.” All the girls loved that story and they loved telling it. The Ephrons were different and they were proud of it. Before coming to Hollywood, Harry Ephron was a playwright in New York, but he wasn’t successful, his plays weren’t selling. Phoebe Ephron got fed up and decided to write a play with her husband. It became a hit and on the back of that hit, they moved to Hollywood to have more lucrative screenwriting careers. Phoebe Ephron was proud of the fact that she helped make her husband’s work a hit and she wasn’t shy about it either. She owned it and demanded acknowledgement for it.

Sadly, the Ephrons succumbed to alcoholism. Nora and her sisters were not sure if it was because the work dried up then they drifted into alcoholism or was it the alcoholism which caused the work to dry up. Between the sisters, they believe that there were multiple vicious cycles at work which caused the premature demise of their parents, especially Phoebe Ephron. Phoebe Ephron, as a result of her alcoholism, became bedridden and delusional, her body wasting away to just a shadow of her former self. But even in her bedridden hallucinational state, in the rare moments when she was lucid, she told Nora, “You are a reporter, take notes.” Phoebe Ephron died in 1971, at the age of 57. The cause of death is cirrhosis of the liver, but the immediate cause of death was overdose of sleeping pills, administered by their father. Harry Ephron could no longer bear to see his wife like that anymore. Nora felt that this detail was too intimate and personal to make it into copy, but her youngest sister Amy Ephron didn’t think so. This was included in one of her novels.

Even after the death of their beloved eldest sister, you can see the sibling rivalry just bubbling underneath. Nora was the daughter that got the best of everything. She came of age when their parents were in their prime, professionally and health wise. Their mother read to Nora the most, which helped made Nora the writer that she was. She was the closest to Nora. She spent the most time conversing and imparting her own brand of wisdom and humor to Nora. She also read to Delia and Hallie some but by the time poor little Amy came along, their family’s fortunes were a shadow of its former grandeur. There were no more fun dinner parties and children’s birthday parties at the Ephron household. There was fear, uncertainty, the dark cloud of alcoholism brought on by their parents. Nora was 14 years old when their parents’ decline began, her youngest sister Amy was only 3 years old. Amy said as a result of what happened to their parents, each sister, in her own way, vowed to be survivors, no matter what. They will not crumble like their parents did. Amy and Delia both said they became resourceful because there was no other choice. None of the four sisters developed addiction issues, each one vowed and carried out in their own way on how they will be survivors. Nothing will take them down.

The book and subsequent movie Heartburn was what brought Nora Ephron into mainstream popular culture. Prior to that she was working as a journalist and essayist. She was very successful as an essayist, but her renown was confined to the New York literary and journalism circle. Heartburn is a very very thinly veiled account at the demise of her second marriage to Carl Bernstein. Carl Bernstein, prior to his manifestation as the unfaithful husband Mark in heartburn who was capable of “having sex with a Venetian blind”, was THE Carl Bernstein of the Watergate reporting. He and Bob Woodward, with their thorough and exhaustive investigating, brought down the president of the United States. They won a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting and Bernstein was riding a career high. He was well liked, well loved and well regarded amongst his peers.

Carl and Nora met at a mutual friend’s party. They fell passionately in love and got married. Nora even made the move to Washington DC as that is where Carl was based. She hated DC, calling it as a place where “ideas went to die.” But armed with love and youthful enthusiasm, she went with her man. They settled in a beautiful house in the DC suburbs and the first of her two sons, Jacob, came soon after. When Jacob was a toddler, she got pregnant again with her second son Max. It was when she was seven-and-a-half months pregnant with Max she found out her husband had been having an affair with their mutual friend Margaret Jay, a British politician. She was enraged. She decided right then and there they would divorce. There would be none of that new-age crap of talking it over and giving the marriage a post mortem to see where they had gone wrong. It was very clear who is in the wrong, Carl Bernstein. And Nora Ephron, as a feminist, will not allow herself to be crapped on like that, even if she were barefoot and pregnant and she has another toddler to take care of. She called her friend Liz Smith to put out the announcement that they are to divorce. She moved back to New York and stayed with a friend for a few months, had her baby and then she got to work on her typewriter and wrote her roman a clef Heartburn. It was in that book she described Mark, the faithless husband (or aka Carl Bernstein) as a cheater, who was terrible at cheating as he charged everything to their credit card instead of using cash. And she reserved the worst vitriol for ‘Thelma’ – the mistress (aka Margaret Jay).

…Thelma Rice a fairly tall person, with a neck as long as an arm and a nose as long as a thumb and you should see her legs, never mind her feet, which are sort of splayed.

Thelma’s face also resembled a “giraffe”.

When she wrote this book, she achieved many aims. Firstly, the money, she needed money as she was now supporting two little children. Secondly, for all the women who had been scorned and publicly cuckolded, she gave them a voice and their revenge. Thirdly, She took revenge on her ex-husband, who went from a well respected journalist who exposed Watergate to someone who can’t keep it in his pants, who is capable of fornicating with a Venetian blind and threw her overboard for someone who looked like a giraffe. The best part of all of this, it was funny. It was funny in a very cruel way. You can’t help but laugh even though you feel really bad for laughing. Even a sympathetic reader will cringe at the book and that was its intended effect. Did Carl Bernstein or even Margaret Jay deserve this public excoriating? Probably not, but Nora Ephron gave zero fucks. She started the ‘I Give Zero Fucks’ club with that book. When the movie came out, there was a debate raging on who was the worse parent. Carl for cheating his pregnant wife or Nora for telling her children exactly what he’d done and making a public mockery of her children’s father. Again, she gave zero fucks what people thought.

Whereas some women burned their husband’s clothes, boiled their mistress’s pet bunny, emptied his bank account, she went one step further: she used her poison pen and wrote all of this down for posterity. Carl Bernstein became a laughingstock. He knew people whispered about him when he attended prestigious conferences and he hated it. Especially when he found out a Hollywood film was going to be made starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep as the leads with Mike Nichols directing, he laid down his demands for the terms of their divorce. ‘Mark’ or Carl Bernstein is to only be portrayed as a dedicated and loving father and he wanted joint custody of the boys. Nora Ephron agreed to those terms and the movie was made. The movie wasn’t a hit like the book was but it set Nora on the path to becoming a screenwriter and movie director.

Heartburn also served another purpose and that is to avenge the betrayal of her mother, Phoebe Ephron. In the declining years of the Ephrons’ marriage, Henry Ephron began having affairs. Phoebe knew about it but he did the typical gas-lighting game. Making her seem drunk, paranoid and crazy and that she was imagining all of this and making it up. Even the children were convinced their mother was crazy and she’d had too much to drink. Hallie said in the film, “it was so cruel of him to not admit it”, so that her mom seemed like the one that’s crazy. I think, in no small part, writing this book, she also tried to avenge her mother for being betrayed by her father.

Nora Ephron was a feminist, she identified as one but she wasn’t a feminist that checked any boxes. She found the bra-burning feminists too serious and boring. They’ve got to lighten up and just take it easy. But she was also strongly opposed to the Helen Gurley Brown’s type of feminism, which is for women to present a facade of confidence at all times and a woman must look after herself. If she wants to attract and keep a man, she better do what’s necessary. She was something in between. Feminism with a sense of humor. Nora Ephron had anxiety about her breast size, she wanted that great rack but she’s not willing to degrade herself to go get it. She wants to be seen as pretty and smart, not just smart “In my sex fantasy, no one loved me for my mind.”

In the end a truce was reached with her ex-husband Carl Bernstein. They were able to functionally co-parent and both Jacob and Max Bernstein are close to their father. She married for a third time to Nicholas Pileggi (screenwriter for Goodfellas and Casino) and it was a long and happy marriage which lasted until her death. He was the kind of man she always wanted, faithful, kind and supported her in all of her endeavors. In her last book of essays, I Remember Nothing, though made no mention of her illness, she made a list of things she would miss if she were to die and at the top was her two boys, her husband Nick and a slew of other things and in true Nora Ephron fashion ended it with “pie.”

“Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.”

 

 

A Rant 

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The generation after the Millennials have a designation – Generation Z. Also said to be the most diverse ethnically, 47% of Gen Z will comprise of ethnic minorities. My children fit this description. But Forbes Magazine chose Kylie Jenner as an “influencer” – a rich white girl who spends half of her days taking selfies or posing in age-inappropriate attire. This person is an influencer? Someone whose job is to market herself, someone with the intellect of a mop bucket, who chooses to not pursue higher education to fill that mop bucket is fit to be an influencer. She’s not even an entrepreneur or a business woman. Putting your name and face on products then flogging it and getting a cut isn’t entrepreneurship or running a business. Of all the potential Gen Zs out there – they chose that, a remnant of the Kard-trashian train wreck. This is another attempt at reinforcing the white supremacy. To have an overprivileged, surgically enhanced white girl to influence her generation which are 47% non-white, I see red.

I personally choose Malala Yousafzai as an influencer of Gen Z. She’s not white and at 18, she’s won a Nobel Peace Prize for promoting education for girls. She nearly died for this cause, she wears the scars on her face.  Kylie Jenner is throwing away her opportunity to a higher education in favor of taking selfies. I want my children to know Malala. I want Malala to be their influencer.

Rant over.

What Happened Miss Simone (2015)

NIINA SIMONE

What happened to Miss Simone? The short answer is heartbreak. Unrelenting, persistent, soul-shattering heartbreak.

What Happened Miss Simone attempts to allow Nina Simone to tell her story in the first person. A lot of the voice over is from archival footage of video recording, tape recordings and personal diaries of Nina Simone from while she was alive.

For someone as dynamic as Nina Simone, no one can tell her story but herself. Her life was blighted by thwarted dreams and unending series of disappointments and heartbreaks from those she trusted the most.

She was not supposed to be a jazz and soul singer. She was supposed to be a classical concert pianist. Had she been born white, that’s what she would have become. She was classical piano prodigy when she was a child. She was so talented that her mother’s white employer paid for Nina to take classical piano lessons with Muriel Mazzanovich. When she became good enough to host recitals, all the money she earned from those events were put into a trust for her future tuition for music conservatories. She got into Juilliard, but she only had enough tuition to attend for one and a half years. When she applied for a scholarship to attend the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, she was rejected. When she realized that she was rejected on the account of her race and not talent, she was heartbroken. She never got over that. She wanted to be the first black classical pianist to play Carnegie Hall now those dreams are dashed.

To support herself and her family, she began working at dive bars in the Philadelphia area. She worked long hours every night playing the piano. She played whatever she knew how to play, from jazz to classical pieces. One day the owner of the bar said she had to sing and play the piano or else she will have to leave her position. She needed that job, so she began singing jazz, blues and soul music. She’s never had any training as a singer nor a songwriter, but she could do both on a whim. This is the culmination of the years of rigorous classical piano training.

During this time she met and married her husband Andrew Stroud, who also became her agent and business manager. He was a former New York Police Department detective and a brute. He was abusive to her, beat her when she was pregnant with their only child Lisa, he abused her in public, raped her and belittled her. She said “he protected me from everyone except himself.” He was a good agent and manager but shitty husband and poor excuse of a human being. He treated her like a commodity rather than a human being. Her earnings afforded them a luxurious lifestyle and he didn’t care how much he was working her.

She became well known and was offered record contracts and television appearances. When she finally did get to play at Carnegie Hall, it was bittersweet. She wanted to play Carnegie Hall as a classical pianist and not a jazz and soul singer. Her first love was classical piano and it was reflected in her music. She always sang with piano accompaniment and it almost seems as the piano playing is the main act and her singing is the supporting act. She was singing just so can sit down and play the piano.

Like all people born and raised in the Jim Crow south, racism was a deeply wounding and oppressive fact of life for black people. Nina Simone was no different than others but the “secrecy” surrounding it all bothered her deeply. The fact you couldn’t even discuss it in their homes, this huge elephant that exists in their society yet you can’t confront it or even discuss it. You had to pretend it wasn’t there. To talk about it or confront it meant you were going to go confront it with white people and that can get your whole family killed. So, when the Civil Rights Movement came along, she was all in. She wrote songs which served as anthems for the Civil Rights Movement, such as ‘Mississippi Goddamn’. As her political activism increased, her contemporary musical output decreased.

The Civil Rights Movement became her purpose in life. She lent her musical talents to a cause greater than herself and it gave her life meaning. Since her dreams of being a concert pianist was taken from  her on the account of race, the Civil Rights Movement was a way to redress that. Her husband Andrew Shroud opposed it because it attracted controversy and her lucrative contracts started to dry up. On this point she stood up to him. Needless to say their home life suffered even more. Andrew Stroud is truly an appalling excuse of a human being. He brutalized and abused this woman, sought to screw his only daughter out of her mother’s legacy and inheritance yet he has no qualms about showing his face on camera and expressed zero remorse or guilt about what he had done to his wife.

Nina Simone was no non-violence activist, she was a black nationalist, along the same vein of Malcolm X and she told Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so. She walked up to him and told him that she didn’t believe in nonviolence, she believed in taking back black power by all means necessary. When Dr. King and Malcolm X were assassinated, it became too much for her. This was another heartbreak, she believed the Civil Rights Movement has died with their assassinations. She left the country, first she went to Barbados, then she went to live in Liberia and those were the happiest years of her life. When she needed to go back to work to earn a living, she moved to France and began working in dive bars for hundreds of dollars a night only.

In the backdrop of most of her adult life, she had violent mood swings and episodes of depression. As she got older, it became more unmanageable, she was diagnosed as bipolar in the 1980s and put on medication. While the medication stabilized her moods and helped with her overall mental state, as time wore on, it affected her piano playing and singing ability. Being on medication allowed her to tour in Europe and earn a living, she was able to end her life in a dignified manner. She was no longer rich and famous, but she kept her integrity and she never compromised her principles for fame. By aligning herself with the Black Nationalist movement severely harmed her career and earning prospects and she knew it but she didn’t care.

After she left her husband in the early ’70s and after the death of her Civil Rights heroes, she went into a downward spiral. The torment that was hidden in her heart revealed itself. All of that anger, hurt, rejection, rage she felt towards society, towards her former husband, she took it out on her only child. She brutalized and abused her only child the way her former husband and society brutalized her. She turned into that monster she sought to run away from and that’s a true shame. After one beating so bad in Liberia, Lisa Simone Kelly chose to take a one way flight back to New York to her father and never lived with her mother again. She was just 14 years old. Mother and daughter never truly reconciled. The wounds were too deep. Lisa Simone Kelly is also a singer, actress and performer. She has come to an accept her mother as she was and appreciate her immense talent but you can tell she cannot bring herself to say she loved her mother. The damage was too much. The last zinger from Lisa Simone Kelly is telling:

“I have been married 18 years, I have a good relationship with my children and I hope I’ll get to die with a smile on my face surrounded by my family. My mother never got that. She passed away still in search of comfort and love. Perhaps if she had them, she might, in the end, have known peace.”

The film is full of archival footage of Nina Simone’s performances and interviews. I learned that I knew many of her songs but I didn’t know it was she who sang and wrote them. She had exiled herself from the United States from 1970s and onwards, the music industry all but forgotten her or relegated her to the dusty shelves of the great artists of yesteryear.

Two days before she died on April 21, 2003, Curtis Institute of Music, the school that turned her down for a scholarship on the account of her skin color, gave her an honorary degree. If they had done what they were supposed to do 50 years prior, we would have been deprived of one of the best singer songwriters of our times but Nina Simone would have had a chance at becoming a fulfilled and happy person.

 

Chris Rock nails it.

CHRIS ROCK OSCARS
Chris Rock Credit Patrick T. Fallon for The New York Times

The only thing I was looking forward to in this year’s Oscar broadcast is Chris Rock’s opening monologue. And it’s the only portion of the program I watched, which I suspect is what millions of people did, I hope we didn’t make it into the Nielson ratings as people who ‘watched’ the Oscars, because I can’t tell you a single thing that happened after the opening monologue.

Though not quite at the level of Richard Pryor, Chris Rock’s natural observation skills of people, society, racism, sexism and everything in between can be thought provoking (on top of being lewd and crude). His particular gift at pointing out the absurdities of life and ridiculousness of people added with his special method of delivery is always entertaining and funny. While Ricky Gervais can be unnecessarily rude and cutting, even to a bunch of over-privileged Hollywood brats, some of his jokes cuts too close to home. It’s not the job of the comedian to be sensitive about the subjects of his jokes, but (in my view), there should be a line somewhere, however far past the acceptable mark, it shouldn’t be crossed. Chris Rock, on most occasions can find that line without seeming as if he’s playing it safe.

Chris Rock was announced as the host of the The Academy Awards ceremonies before the Oscar nominations were announced. It was rumored that when the #OscarSoWhite controversy came to light, he threw out all of his preparations and started over, he refused to confirm or deny this but from the content of the opening monologue last night, it’s very obvious this is what he did. It’s a very sanitized version of what his normal comedy routine would be. The only word which can be considered  as remotely inappropriate would be “ass” and it wasn’t bleeped out so it must have been allowed.

He made his points in one, two, three punches. No one of importance was spared. I’d argue Will Smith got the harshest treatment when Chris Rock said “It’s also not fair that Will was paid $20 million for ‘Wild Wild West’ O.K.?” and proceeded to continue to skewer the Pinkett-Smiths:

Jada is going to boycott the Oscars — Jada boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties. I wasn’t invited.

Oh, that’s not an invitation I would turn down.

Chris Rock is pointing out the irony of the Pinkett-Smiths’ boycott, they are arguably one of the most powerful Hollywood couples and Will Smith is one of the most successful actors of his generation with multiple Oscar nominations under his belt and generated hundreds of millions at the box office. Perhaps the #OscarSoWhite outrage should be reserved for minority actors who have not enjoyed his level of success.

Of course the burning question of the night is whether Chris Rock thinks Hollywood is “racist”, to which he had the best response:

Is Hollywood racist? Is Hollywood racist?

You know, that’s a…you gotta go at that at the right way.

Is it burning-cross racist? No.

Is it fetch-me-some-lemonade racist? No. No, no, no.

[…But]

You’re damn right Hollywood is racist. But it ain’t that racist that you’ve grown accustomed to.

Hollywood is sorority racist.

It’s like, “We like you Rhonda, but you’re not a Kappa.”

This type of “sorority” or what I refer to as country club racism is not confined to Hollywood. It’s become the new mainstream racism. Slights – real or perceived, microaggressions so small that only the most fine tuned of sensibilities can detect it. Blink and you miss it. Important projects and opportunities coming up which is not relayed to non-white people ‘accidentally on purpose’ until it’s too late. Emails and bulletins regarding important meetings and team building conferences didn’t get sent out by ‘mistake’, but somehow all the white people knew about it: “Oh you didn’t know? I am sooooo sorry, I thought you knew” – type of thing. Racism that is impossible to prove and if you point it out, you get accused of stirring the pot and being oversensitive.

Chris Rock also called out the double standard demanded by Hollywood A-listers, specifically the #AskHerMore nonsense, started by Reese Witherspoon where actresses should be asked about more than who made their dress and who their stylist is. This is particularly hypocritical. Hollywood awards season (roughly September – February) every year has become a de facto fifth season for fashion. It’s when fashion designers beg A-list actresses to wear their newest off-the-runway frocks. It’s free advertisement for them and it’s become its own industry. It’s when most of the revenues in the Hollywood styling, hair, makeup, plastic surgery (botox injections and the like) and any other beauty related services are generated. And Reese Witherspoon fully participates in this. She often shows up to award shows in fashion’s latest and greatest looking fabulous, groomed within an inch of her life. If she doesn’t want people to ask about her dress and who she’s wearing, she can maybe show up to award shows in off-the-rack purchases like like Meryl Streep who buys her clothes at Bergdorf’s or Saks the week before, or like Diane Keaton who wears her own unique and whacky style of clothing; she will get polite stares over her shoulder and no one will ask her where she got her dress. Chris Rock had this response:

Everything’s not sexism, everything’s not racism.

They ask the men more because the men are all wearing the same outfits, O.K.? Every guy in there is wearing the exact same thing.

You know, if George Clooney showed up with a lime green tux on, and a swan coming out his ass, somebody would go, “What you wearing, George?”

In the few moments of seriousness, Chris Rock indirectly mentioned the Black Lives Matter movement by saying the In Memoriam section should honor the black people who were shot by police on the way to watch a movie. This comment drew uncomfortable cringes and shifting in seats but he didn’t care. Tonight is not a night to worry about political correctness or white fragility.

And addressing the lack of black presence on Hollywood screens:

What I’m trying to say is, you know, it’s not about boycotting anything. It’s just, we want opportunity. We want black actors to get the same opportunities as white actors.

That’s it. Not just once. Leo gets a great part every year and, you know, everybody, all you guys, get great parts all the time.

But what about the black actors?

One can’t argue with that.

I vacillate between he didn’t go far enough and pushing far enough to make everyone just uncomfortable. It seems as if he wanted to respect the solemnity of the protest in the black community and also the occasion itself. He wanted to state his points and get his message across clearly but he didn’t want the audience to get hung up on the punchlines. It’s a very delicate balance.

The full transcript of his opening monologue is here.

#OscarSoWhite – White Nominees And Winners, If You Don’t Know What You Are Saying, Do #STFU

Oscar So White
2016 Oscar Nominees #OscarSoWhite 

Since the Oscar nominees were announced a week ago, the media has been ablaze with outrage. Everyone took to social media and print media decrying and denouncing the obvious bias of the academy. While it’s too simple to accuse the all white Oscars as case of straightforward racism and discrimination against black and minority actors and filmmakers, as it has every bit to do with the capitalistic filmmaking economy and how Hollywood conducts business, which results in poor quality films with very little actors of color; the biases of the majorly white members of the academy of a certain age has reared its ugly head two years in a row.

White America this time, has wisely stayed out of debate except to express outrage. There will be no more of the Nancy Lee Grahn’s style of outbursts criticizing Viola Davis’s Emmy Awards acceptance speech. The backlash which resulted from those few tweets by Nancy Lee Grahn have taught the white collective to keep their big mouths shut when black people and minorities are talking about lack of diversity in television and movies. Even if they don’t agree with Jada Pinkett-Smith and Spike Lee calling for all black people to boycott the Oscars or any other method of protest, it’s best to keep that opinion to yourself if you are white.

So far the white collective have been good about keeping contrary opinions about the so-white Oscars to themselves, that is until our European counterparts decided to express theirs. Before the American media comes down too hard on the statements of Charlotte Rampling, Julie Delpy and the confusion of Michael Caine of not realizing no black people were nominated in the major Oscar categories, these people are European, French and English to be exact. While racism, elitism and classism exists in the UK and France, at least in artistic circles they’ve achieved a level of egalitarianism where racism, bias and discrimination against minorities isn’t as blatant. Good actors and filmmakers can be judged on their abilities and quality of work. It’s not total egalitarianism but compared to Hollywood, it’s a much better situation. It is doubtful that Rampling, Delpy and Caine are fully aware of the tinderbox that is racism in this country. They may have heard about the police shootings of black men and children and the death of Sandra Bland while in custody etc., but they are perhaps not as aware about the rampant institutionalized racism that plagues every corner of this country. They probably naively assumed that the lack of minorities being recognized for the Oscars is simply because there aren’t any good movies to choose from which contain minority actors, writers and directors. This is fair enough. They live and work largely in Europe, if they do come to the States it’s for work and promotion and they stay in swanky hotels and dine in fancy restaurants for the duration of their stay. Their ignorance can be forgiven.

However, if this is the case, then please do us all a favor. Please STFU (shut the fuck up) about things you know nothing about. If I went to France or the U.K. and mouthed off about some domestic issue which is specific to the country, I’d be called an ignorant American with a big mouth who knows nothing. 

There is no such thing as “being racists to whites” or what we call reverse racism. It’s something a bunch of  mediocre disgruntled white people made up because they didn’t get what they want based on the color their white skin. It’s not a real thing. Dominant powers in any society cannot experience racism and discrimination the oppressed minorities experience. The supposed ‘racism’ white people experience is merely a minor inconvenience compared to the real soul crushing racism minorities experience on a daily basis.

Rampling’s further comments in the same interview,

Why classify people? We live now in countries where anyway people are more or less accepted. There are always problems: ‘He’s less handsome’ or ‘He’s too black’ or ‘He’s too white.’ There will always, always be someone who will say, ‘Oh, you’re too…’ What are we going to do? We’re going to classify all that to create thousands of little minorities everywhere?

In a perfect world, this would be true, though her delivery is very insensitive and abrupt. While it’s true in television and movies, any actor or actress can potentially be told they are ‘too…’, but the fact that there are few faces of color should lead anyone with a logical mind to conclude that the whole industry itself is too white.

Julie Delpy would rather be black in Hollywood than a white woman? She needs her head examined. If she were black, her charming little film ‘2 Days in New York’ would have never been made. She would have never been chosen to write for the movies ‘Before Sunset’ and ‘Before Midnight’ even if it was her concept to begin with. Hollywood is also notorious for hijacking the ideas of writers, paying them a paltry sum for the ‘idea’ and then taking that idea to later make millions with it, of which the original writer with the idea won’t see a penny of. If she weren’t white, she’d have never received Oscar nominations for those efforts, which to be honest, are mediocre at best. But the old white guys up at the academy liked it.

Delpy’s full statement reads: “Two years ago, I said something about the Academy being very white male, which is the reality, and I was slashed to pieces by the media. It’s funny — women can’t talk. I sometimes wish I were African American because people don’t bash them afterward. It’s the hardest to be a woman. Feminists is something people hate above all. Nothing worse than being a woman in this business. I really believe that.”  

It’s also funny to note, Delpy said this at a Sundance Film Festival press conference while promoting her movie which Macaulay Culkin was present as he is in her movie, as she was talking he put his head in his hands, knowing the shitstorm that is about to hit her. If only she had such foresight.

Delpy’s statement besides being highly inappropriate, is also implying that African Americans can say what they want and get away with it because to openly speak out against African Americans would be seen as racist and no one wants to be called a racist so people keep quiet. I am not sure if this is true, this could just be her perception. But if it were true and Hollywood does give carte blanche for black people to say what they want about the filmmaking industry, did it ever occur to her that the supposed silence is not one of agreement but one of quiet contempt and dismissal? Just because the powers that be in Hollywood let black people criticize the system and get away with it, it doesn’t mean they are being heard or taken seriously.

It’s not easy being a woman in Hollywood either, especially a woman over a certain age. Women have their own struggles when trying to get their work recognized, so the blanket dismissal of bias by Rampling and Delpy comparing her plight as a white woman to those of minorities are incorrect and out of order.

Both actresses have since apologized for their remarks. I hope they’ve learned their lesson. As privileged white people, don’t talk about things which don’t relate to you.

Michael Caine’s crime is he is seemingly unaware there were no black actors nominated. He asked the interviewer at one point:

“The one I — I don’t know whether Idris [Elba] got [nominated] because I saw Idris [in ‘Beasts of No Nation‘], and I thought he was wonderful. I thought he would get [nominated]. Did he not get nominated?”

No sir, that’s the problem that everyone has been talking about. No black actors or actresses were nominated.

Prior to that, he also said the Academy can’t vote just vote for an actor because he is black even though “He’s not very good, but he’s black. I’ll vote for him.” Again, the same problem, there hasn’t been any black actors to vote for, you couldn’t vote for a bad acting performance from a black actor even if you wanted to. Do keep up Mr. Caine.

Racism has changed in America. It went from the overt, frothing at the mouth, KKK marching and church burning type of open racism and bigotry to the quiet, covert and passive aggressive kind of racism, or what some would call ‘micro-aggressions’, barely detectable but for the most attuned and keenest of observers. It’s the inappropriate jokes which are meant to serve as icebreakers, the barely detectable slights and the ‘accidentally on purpose’ exclusions of minorities for plum projects. The unemployment rate of blacks are 9.2%, double that of whites. This statistic alone should paint a picture of racism in America. Being gainfully employed is a marker of inclusion or lack thereof. Being employed offers one dignity in life, it gives one an opportunity to contribute to society at large.

The Imitation Game (2014)

 

the-imitation-game

For any self-professed nerd, coding or computer science enthusiast, the name Alan Turing will have significant meaning. Alan Turing was the father of computer science and computer programming, except when he was alive, such terms were not used. He simply wanted to “build a brain” to aid humans in analyzing data and occasionally think for humans.

Turing was the original ‘nerd’, before Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Steve Wozniak were even a thought. Turing’s life’s major achievement was cracking the German Enigma, an encryption code machine which the Nazi forces used to communicate with their commanding officers and it was what Hitler used to communicate with his generals too. The Enigma was deemed undecipherable, many of the brightest and best minds in Great Britain, France, Poland even Germans have tried and failed. The only people who have cracked the code were the Poles in 1932:

The Poles had broken Enigma in 1932, when the encoding machine was undergoing trials with the German Army. But when the Poles broke Enigma, the cipher altered only once every few months. With the advent of war, it changed at least once a day, giving 159 million million million possible settings to choose from. The Poles decided to inform the British in July 1939 once they needed help to break Enigma and with invasion of Poland imminent.

Many in the upper echelons of the British government and intelligence services have already secretly resigned to the fact that Enigma was undecipherable, even though they kept recruiting mathematicians, cryptanalysts, staticians, even national chess champions to try and break the code. Alan Turing was not recruited, he walked into Navy Commander Alistair Denniston’s office for an interview. Turing went to the interview acting as though he already got the job and he was the only person able to do the job. He was cocky bordering on rude, snappy and showed no deference to the office of the navy commander. Even though the Enigma was a top state secret, no one outside of the most inner intelligence circles is supposed to know of its existence, Turing knew about it and said he could decipher the undecipherable. There was nothing that excited him more than solving a problem others couldn’t solve.

Alan Turing was born on June 23, 1912 in London. He was from an upper-middle class family of the gentry (but not aristocratic) and his father was in the Indian civil service. He came from a family of means and his education reflected that. Because his father was in the Indian civil service, his parents were away a lot. Alan Turing and his brother closest to him in age, Julius, lived in a series of English foster homes until his father retired from the Indian civil service in 1926 and returned to England full time. Like many upper-class childhoods of that era, it was a childhood marked by isolation, loneliness, academic rigidity and emotional suppression.

Alan Turing showed a gift in mathematics (applied and theoretical) and applied physics since he was a boy in boarding school but during those times, those gifts and interest were not appreciated. People of his class are to study the classics and languages, maths (as it’s referred to in the UK) and the sciences are for dilettantes and people who aren’t serious about their future. His mother Ethel Sara Turing knew her son was an oddball who had different interests than other boys of his age, she didn’t encourage it but she didn’t discourage him either, she secretly hoped those interests would go away and he’d go back to learning serious things.

The great tragedy of Turing’s life was his arrest and conviction for gross indecency, in one fell swoop he lost his security clearance with the government and his reputation was forever tarnished as his arrest made the papers. He was a homosexual and in 1951 he was caught out having relations with a young man in the city of Manchester in the north of England, a far more conservative part of England where such things are not tolerated. ‘The Imitation Game’ focuses on his achievements as well as the injustice and bigotry that was meted out to him. Turing was a war hero to the British government, except his work was so highly classified no one knew of his true contributions until 50 years later.

The story is told in a non-linear fashion with flashbacks and flash-forwards to present day, during the war and his childhood while at boarding school. The movie begins with an “investigation” by the Manchester police of a possible break-in at the home of Alan Turing (he was teaching at the University of Manchester during that time). When the police officers Nock and Staehl arrive at Turing’s home, Turing acted suspiciously and told the “bobbies” everything was fine, nothing was stolen and what he really needed was a good cleaning as his house was a tip and unless either one of them wanted to put on an apron and clean his house for him, he would have no use for them and would like them to leave.

Turing’s tone was very condescending and in this exchange, the snobbery of the upper-class was revealed. He treated the Mancunian police officers as intellectual inferiors. They were clearly working class, and their almost unintelligible northern accents proves that. For being an English gentleman, who received the best education in the world, he was sorely lacking in manners, social graces and basic decency when dealing with another human being. His rudeness and abruptness is not only confined to Mancunian police officers, he’s like that with everyone, even his superiors and friends.

Officer Nock was suspicious and felt that there was more to this break-in than meets the eye. So he decides to do his own investigation and requests Alan Turing’s war records. When he was told by the Home Office that Turing’s war records were classified, he got even more suspicious. Nock forged Turing’s name on an official war records request form and sent it in to the Home Office again, he got an empty envelope back. The Home Office wasn’t going to supply Turing’s war records under any circumstances. Nock got even more suspicious, he begun to suspect that Turing was a Soviet spy, as he was from London, he went to Cambridge for university, which was a known breeding ground for communism at the time. Nock suspected Turing was part of or associated with the ‘Cambridge 5’ of Soviet spies.

On a side note here, this exchange with the Manchester police officers are a pattern of Turing’s life. Turing could have made this easily go away had he been nice and courteous and even ‘professor-like’ to the police officers. The officers, due to entrenched social class system, would have respected Turing’s higher station in life and left him alone. But because Turing chose to be so rude and condescending, the police officers decided to investigate him, which eventually led to the discovery that he was a homosexual and the ‘break-in’ was done by one of the rent boys he solicited and his life and secrets came crashing down.

The movie then flashes back to the Bletchley Park days, the site where hundreds of men and women were working night and day intercepting German messages and trying to decipher the codes. In a small hut or warehouse near Bletchley Park was where Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), John Cairncross (Allen Leech), Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard) and Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) attempted to build the first computer to try to break the Enigma. Since the Enigma had 159 million million million settings and those settings reset at midnight each day, there is no way humans can even attempt to break any of the codes before it resets at midnight every day. So, Turing decides from early on that only a machine can even attempt to decipher the Enigma. He decided to build a “Turing Machine” with the specific intent to break the Enigma.

Turing spent the day building the machine while the others spent their time trying to manually decipher the messages. This caused some resentment amongst the men, since Turing declared himself to be the smartest amongst them, why isn’t he helping them decode the messages but instead he’s building this machine which he names “Christopher” (after a childhood paramour who died). Turing didn’t care what anyone thought of him, he was convinced “Christopher” was their best shot at cracking the Enigma.

Another side plot of the story is the relationship between Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) and Turing, Joan Clarke was recruited after Turing put a very difficult crossword puzzle in the paper along with an advertisement which read anyone who can finish the crossword puzzle in 10 minutes or less can send a letter with their contact information to the paper and they may have an opportunity to work at the job of a lifetime. Keira Knightley was one of the advertisement respondents, she was a Cambridge student with a double first degree in Mathematics, because she was a woman, she was not offered a diploma when she finished her courses. Like Turing, Joan Clarke was a natural mathematician. After receiving her letter in the mail, she came to the secret location where all the other prospective interviewees were and she realizes that she’s the only woman. Turing then gave all the prospective cryptographers a task in which they had to finish in under 6 minutes. He reveals to the head of MI6 Sir Stewart Menzies (pronounced Mingis) that it is not doable as it took him 8 minutes to finish, he simply wanted to see who could even finish the task. Joan Clarke finished it in under 6 minutes and was promptly hired. However, when it came time for Joan Clarke to show up to work, she was nowhere to be seen. Turing then raced to her parents home and finds out her parents didn’t allow her to go back because she was amongst a lot of strange men which is “indecorous” and because of the distance she’ll have to live in the dormitories there so her parents disapproved. Turing assured her parents that Joan will be very “decorous” and she is to work with the secretaries, who are all women and will room with the ladies. Her parents agreed to let her go. Turing forged a very close friendship with Joan and they were each other’s intellectual soul mates. A couple of years into the war, Joan’s parents again recalled her back home, stating she was now 25 and unmarried and it was about time she looked for a husband and settled down. Turing didn’t want her to leave as he enjoyed her company and she was good at her job, he proposed marriage to Joan to solve the no husband problem. Joan knew Turing was probably a homosexual but she accepted his proposal. She didn’t mind that he was gay and she wanted a marriage of intellectual equals. After all the work that she’s done, there’s no way she was going to go back to being a housewife.

About two years into building “Christopher” at considerable expense to the government, and still producing no results, Commander Denniston was on the verge of firing Turing. Denniston never liked Turing to begin with because he was rude, obnoxious and didn’t follow the chain of command orders. But he could overlook all this if Turing was contributing to the war effort and the defeat of the Nazis. Denniston had tried to use many excuses to fire Turing, even accusing him of a being a Soviet spy as there were whispers that one of the men in the cryptanalyst group was a Soviet spy. It wasn’t Turing, it was John Cairncross, and he wasn’t a very good spy. Menzies already knew Cairncross was a spy and deliberately put him in Bletchley Park so that the Soviets who were fighting the Nazis alongside the Allies can have access to some of the intelligence the British were gathering. But Cairncross doesn’t know that MI6 knows he is a Soviet spy. It had to be done through the MI6 because the government would not authorize sharing of intelligence with a communist regime, which on an idealogical level is still an enemy of Britain. When Turing found out Cairncross is the Soviet spy, he threatened to tell Menzies but Cairncross threatens Turing back with revealing his “secret” which is his homosexuality if he tells Menzies. But Menzies already knew everything, including Turing was gay. He is not the head of MI6 for nothing.

What sealed his fate ultimately is when Turing went over Denniston’s head and wrote to the prime minister Winston Churchill directly to get funding to build his machine, Churchill not only agreed and ordered Denniston and everyone else to stay out of the way and promoted Turing as the leader of cryptanalyst team replacing the twice national chess champion Hugh Alexander. This left Denniston fuming and was ready to fire Turing at the first opportunity. When Denniston wanted to fire Turing for wasting government funds building a machine that didn’t work, the other members of the team, Alexander, Cairncross and Hilton threatened to quit too if Denniston fired Turing. Denniston gave them one month to make the machine work or else the machine will be turned off and funding stopped.

An epiphany came when Turing heard his fiancee Joan Clarke chatting with her friend Helen at the pub after work about how the German messages every morning are the same and how it became a running joke with the girls. Every morning begins with a weather report at 6:00 AM and ends with “Heil Hitler”. Turing then realized instead of programming Christopher to decipher every possible setting variation, they should just put all the fixed variables into Christopher and then they fill in the gaps. In the end, it’s the German’s penchant and fastidiousness for organization and precision that gave them away and of course “Heil Hitler”. Turing programmed “6:00 AM” and “Heil Hitler” into Christopher as those are the same words used at the first message transmission every morning, and viola, the Enigma was cracked. Overnight, they were able to locate all of the German U-boats and British convoys in the Atlantic.

But Turing’s genius doesn’t stop here. Turing, who can be very logical to the point of being cold, figured out right away that they cannot act one every piece of intelligence gathered from the Enigma machine otherwise the Germans will find out the British Intelligence Services cracked the code and they will recalibrate the settings of the Enigma again and they’ve just wasted two years of their time. So while everyone is celebrating and trying to call Commander Denniston, Turing stopped them, even at the expense of passenger convoys in the Atlantic and soldiers. Hugh Alexander was angry with Turing as was Peter Hilton (his brother was on board one of the navy ships in the cross hair of German U-boats) but they soon realized Turing was right. They have to choose to reveal their intelligence in a methodical, statistical manner where it cannot tip off the Germans but also secure the Allies victory. They have to calculate with statistical and mathematical accuracy to secure the Allies victory with minimal loss to life but it cannot rouse suspicions with the Germans.

Turing and Joan Clarke decided to go to Sir Stewart Menzies with their information and plan. Turing suggested that Menzies should feed ‘false intelligence’ to the government and military on how they came about the German positions and even go so far to spread this intelligence overseas within earshot of the Germans so that they are for certain their Enigma encrypting machine was not cracked. Instead, Turing’s team will give Menzies which German positions to attack everyday, based on statistical analysis and chance. Menzies remarked to Turing and Joan Clarke that the fate of soldiers and civilians will be at the hands of “mathematics” and “statistics”? To which Turing answered “yes”, it’s the only way.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing after the initial breakthrough, the German’s changed the Enigma settings a few more times but Turing and his team already had a good grasp of how the German messages and their subsequent codes worked and they were able to decode all the messages. In the end, it was estimated with Turing’s work, the war was shortened by at least 2 years if not more and 14 million lives saved.

Turing narrates rather cynically, this whole war was protrayed as a clash of civilizations, a fight between freedom and tyranny and how God chose the side of good over evil, but it’s not. It was careful application of maths and statistics that won the war. Anyone who believes otherwise is foolish.

When the war was over and Allied victory is declared, Sir Stewart Menzies ordered Turing and his team to never speak about their work during the war to anyone and to never see each other again. Their one last task was to burn all the papers. Menzies said “this war is over, there could be another, but with any luck, we may never have to see each other again.”

Another huge part of Turing’s life is his homosexuality. He never denied he was a homosexual and he wasn’t ashamed of it either. He realized he was gay when he was very young when he fell in love with another boy at his school Christopher Morcom,

[who was] a year ahead of him at Sherborne, to whom Alan Turing found himself powerfully attracted in 1928. He, Christopher Morcom, gave Turing a vital period of intellectual companionship — which ended with Morcom’s sudden death [from bovine tuberculosis] in February 1930.

Turing’s conviction that he must now do what Morcom could not, apparently sustained him through a long crisis. For three years at least, as we know from his letters to Morcom’s mother, his thoughts turned to the question of how the human mind, and Christopher’s mind in particular, was embodied in matter; and whether accordingly it could be released from matter by death.

When Turing went to Cambridge for university, he was able to fully explore his homosexuality as a lot of Cambridge University students explored their sexuality while on campus, whether they were homosexual or not. I suppose as long as you don’t hold hands and openly kiss whilst crossing the hallowed halls of this respected institution, what you do in your rooms is entirely your business. Evelyn Waugh wrote at length about this sort of permissiveness in his novel ‘Brideshead Revisited’ and how Cambridge University for upper-class people at least is a place where boys can safely explore their sexuality without the legal repercussions.

Being a homesexual wasn’t a crime on its own but engaging in homosexual activities was a crime (gross indecency) in Great Britain, therefore he wasn’t out and proud. Because of his highly logical mind, his homosexuality was very natural to him, it was how he was born, therefore there was nothing wrong with it. When he was arrested on gross indecency charges, he didn’t admit or deny the offenses and he also told the police officers he doesn’t think there is anything wrong with being a homosexual either. The judge gave Turing two options, go to prison for two years or take a hormone therapy which will chemically castrate him and cure him of his “homosexual predilections”. This way he could keep his post at the university and continue his work and research. But after a year of being on chemical castration treatment, the side effects and personal humiliation got to be too much for him. He chose to end his life by eating an apple laced with cyanide.

He was found by his cleaner when she came in on 8 June 1954. He had died the day before of cyanide poisoning, a half-eaten apple beside his bed. His mother believed he had accidentally ingested cyanide from his fingers after an amateur chemistry experiment, but it is more credible that he had successfully contrived his death to allow her alone to believe this. The coroner’s verdict was suicide.

Besides his remarkable genius and intellect, another strong feature marked Alan Turing’s life is his profound loneliness, his solitary life save for rent boys. Since his school friend Christopher Morcom died, he never really formed any other deep friendships aside from Joan Clarke. After the war, Joan Clarke married and moved to Scotland after her husband’s retirement due to frail health. They remained good friends after even after their ‘engagement’ ended. Turing couldn’t go through with the wedding knowing he is a homosexual and even though Joan Clarke was unfazed by that, it was unfair to her.

For such a brilliant and accomplished professor (as no one knew he helped cracked the Enigma during the war yet), as the inventor of ‘The Turing Machine’ – a precursor to the modern day computer, this is an ignominious end. A humiliating end on a personal and professional level. To chemically castrate a red blooded male just because he was gay and then splash his disgrace and private business all over the newspapers so that he is thoroughly humiliated in front of his peers as well, Turing didn’t deserve this even if he wasn’t a war hero who saved millions of lives. Turing didn’t deserve this even if he was a complete “ass” as Joan Clarke calls him. No human being deserves this.

In 2013, Queen Elizabeth II granted him a posthumous pardon. Turing is now considered a LGBT icon, a title he most likely would have scoffed at.

Like all Hollywood adaptations of true life events, certain artistic liberties are taken to dramatize events. The machine wasn’t called “Christopher”, it was called Victory and his whole team worked on building the machine not just Turing himself. The movie was filmed in England, some parts of it in the real Bletchley Park where men and women  toiled day and night to defeat the Nazis by breaking their codes. Alan Turing’s niece was sceptical about this movie at first, but after she saw it, she were happy with the result as it honored the life and achievements of her uncle and didn’t focus on his disgrace.

I enjoyed the movie tremendously. I am a nerd in some sense. I like math, I like computers especially the early computer pioneers who built these machines from scratch and programmed everything from scratch. Alan Turing’s approach to building a computer is like building an extension of the human brain. It’s to assist humans not take over as the human brain. The human brain to Turing is still far superior than any machine can build.

The so-white Oscars.

 

The coveted golden statute.
For the second year in a row, the Academy Awards is accused of excluding people of color in their major categories. All the actors nominated in the four acting categories (lead actor, lead actress, supporting actor and supporting actress) are all white. The directors nominated in the best directing category are all white except one, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, who is Mexican. 

Many thought with the uproar last year, things would change for the better this year, that people of color would be better represented at least in the acting, directing and writing and best picture categories. It appears the members of the academy doubled down on selecting what they believe to the best acting, writing, directing and best picture categories without any regard to the racial composition of the movies they choose. 

For the past 10 years, the movie experience has been depressing for me. The quality of good films are getting less and less each year. Most films just pander to audiences to ensure ticket sales. Films do not have a message anymore. There are no lessons to be drawn from films, there are no lessons taught, only entertainment and even that’s dubious. Films today are safe, controversy-free, and if they want to generate controversy, it’s got to be the right kind of controversy. Not the uncomfortable kind where it requires its audience to think and process unfamiliar ideas. Films today definitely don’t seek to expand its audience’s world view. 

The Academy Awards are a funny thing. Ever since I have been following the Oscars (with less interest each year), the ‘Academy’ is treated with scorn and reverence all at the same time. Actors, directors, producers, writers, film editors, costume designers, anyone who can receive an Oscar for their work all trash the members of the academy and revere them at the same time. When certain actors or movies are snubbed, the Hollywood establishment and reporters are all out with full force with their criticism. But when anyone wins an Academy Award, whether for acting, directing, writing or the less prominent categories, all the winners are gushing with gratitude and praise for the same academy members they were just criticizing just a few weeks ago. Everyone who works in Hollywood wants their work to be recognized by the ‘academy members’ but they don’t want to look like they are desperate for the recognition. They want to maintain a certain aloofness and nonchalance about it and when the academy fails to recognize what the Hollywood establishment believes to be good work, the claws are out and accusations begin to fly. But when award day rolls around, all the winners are equally gracious and thankful to the ‘members of the academy’. 

The truth is, the ‘members of the academy’ rarely gets their nominations and winners right by public opinion or the critics. There are 5 nomination spots for each of the acting, directing, writing categories and thankfully they’ve increased the best picture category to 10 spots as it’s near impossible to narrow all the films which entered competition to just 5 of the best, even for a really shitty film year, which has been the case for the last 10 years or so (if not longer).

I know for a fact ‘Titanic’ was not the best picture of the year, it was not best anything yet it won the most awards in 1998. It was one of the highest grossing films of all time, but it was far from the best. The acting was mediocre, the story was mediocre and it’s a typical James Cameron film full of technological and special effects gimmicks and not so much the actual substance of the film. At least his subsequent film ‘Avatar’ had a political and environmental message but for ‘Titanic’, besides the attractive lead actors and a soppy star crossed lovers story line, it was a mediocre film which panders to teenagers. 

I am an amateur movie-watcher. I didn’t study film and I know nothing about what makes good editing, cinematography or directing. When I watch a film, I watch for good writing, good acting, accuracy if it’s pertaining to a specific time in history and cultural accuracy if it’s about a specific culture. And if they can make a movie on a location outside of a Hollywood studio and they make good use of God’s green earth to accentuate the film, that’s even better. Some of the best films have never been seen from an American movie theater. Some of the best films are subtitled made in a different country which no one has even heard of. One comes to mind is ‘As It Is In Heaven’, a Swedish film by Kay Pollack. It was the last film I watched where it moved me on a deep level. It is a film about a world famous conductor returning home to the small Swedish village he was born and raised because of his heart condition. He was bullied growing up and while he went on to become a world famous conductor, the people who bullied him stayed behind in that small village. When he returns home, he realizes not much as changed. However, he finds it in his heart to forgive his tormentors and tries to find new meaning in his life by conducting a small church choir. Because of his world class music education and training, the little choir got so good that they got to enter a nationwide competition. That little tiny insignificant, nondescript Swedish village is a microcosm of the larger world. You have the blowhards, the bullies, the kind people who do good but don’t get recognized for their kindness, and you have romantic rivalries and jealousies. 

The last American film which remotely moved me to the same degree as ‘As It Is In Heaven’ is ‘One True Thing’, a film with Meryl Streep who was terminally ill with cancer and her daughter, Renee Zellweger returns home to care for her mother, whom she was never close to,  she never really got along with her mother and never looked up to her because she saw her mother as ‘just a housewife’. She was always daddy’s girl, she went to Harvard and studied English like her dad and she became a well regarded journalist (albeit a ruthless one) and her father is a tenured English professor at Harvard but ultimately a failed novelist. She returns home and finds out several family secrets that do not put her father in the best light. Over time she realized what a strong person her mother is and mother and daughter reconcile their differences, but not in a kissy-huggy, I love you all is forgiven way. She really saw her mother’s soul and she learned her mother ‘saw’ her all along. Her mother didn’t just favor her younger brother because he was sweet and uncomplicated when compared to her. Her mother was her biggest champion, biggest cheerleader, all done from the quiet corners of her soul, while she was toiling in her kitchen. 

While Meryl Streep was nominated for an Academy Award for her role as the mother, the movie got very little else recognition. ‘As It is in Heaven’ was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film but it didn’t win and it never got wide release in the United States. This brings me to my next point. Film critiquing is highly subjective. It’s very rare you will find total consensus on how great a film is (or how awful a film is), and because it is subjective, you are allowed to discriminate based on that subjectivity. People watch and critique film with their judgement and biases. I would be hard pressed to find a film critic or member of the academy who will watch a film based solely on the quality and content of the film and not factor in their own biases of likes and dislikes. The ‘members of the academy’ are 94% white, 77% male with an average age of 62, black members of the academy account for 2% and Latinos even less than 2%. With this composition, it’s very unlikely they will nominate ‘Straight Outta Compton’ for best picture, best director or the acting categories. It’s also the same reason why ‘Selma’ didn’t get more nominations. A 62 year old white guy isn’t going to identify with the struggles of Dr. King and most definitely not the inner city struggles of Compton.  As much as they would like to give all films equal consideration but when other films like ‘Birdman’ (the eventual best picture winner over ‘Selma’) or ‘American Sniper’ or ‘Whiplash’ are in contention, the 62 year old white guy will probably go for ‘American Sniper’ and the more cultured will probably go for ‘Birdman’. I can’t critique as I’ve not seen either film. 

The second problem with Hollywood is one of their own doing, and that is the lack of good films being made. The Hollywood films being released now is a string of comic book, dystopian and vampire novel series with 3 or 4 movies in the pipeline to guarantee studios profits. Book adaptations such as ‘The Hours’ and ‘The Reader’ are far and in between and for an original screen play to be made is even more rare. Hollywood studios will not part with their cash unless they can reasonably predict a return on investment. And this may be harsh, but moviegoers are usually children and teenagers, not exactly the most literate or sophisticated demographic who will appreciate a nice Henry James adaptation or a Todd Haynes film. Children, understandably like to see animation films or films that feature talking animals. Teenagers like to watch Star Wars, The Hunger Games, 50 Shades of Gray, Fantastic Four, etc. They are less likely to go watch films like ‘Carol’ or ‘The Danish Girl’. Another one of my favorites films ‘The End of the Affair’ (which Julianne Moore was robbed of an Oscar win in my opinion), I went to see it in the theater, the theater was more than half empty. The people watching that are people at least 30 or older. Perhaps it’s just me, people 30 or older rarely line up around the block on premier night to see any film. Most can’t be bothered until it’s out on DVD or Netflix. 

The combination of having a white, male and above a certain age demographic for academy members and Hollywood not making enough quality films where people of color are represented in lead or supporting roles, the result will be an all white Oscars. A good place to start would be to ‘retire’ some of the old, male and white academy members and replace them with younger, ethnically and racially diverse members. As for the gender quota, it may be wise to make it 50-50. Next, an equally important component is for Hollywood studios to take a chance and invest in smaller more artistic films and feature up and coming, more diverse and less well known actors to give them a chance to shine. For once, stop worrying about ticket sales and take a leap of faith. The billions earned from The Hunger Games and Twilight Series should be able to sustain a few losses and give audiences a more comprehensive theater experience. 

Creating more movies from original screenplays can also solve some of the stereotypical role type casting problems for minorities. It can open up a plethora of opportunities for people of color. Black men don’t have to play the gangster, a corrupt cop, a drug dealer, a wife beater to get noticed, black women don’t need to play a prostitute, junkie, a sadistic mother or a self-loathing woman who sleeps with her husband’s executioner in order to win Oscar awards (Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball). The problem is not a shortage of talent in the writing, acting and directing genre, there is plenty of talent to go around. Just think of all the piles and piles of scripts waiting to be green lighted, there must be some Oscar worthy material in there.  The problem is lack of opportunity. As Viola Davis said in her Emmy Award acceptance speech, the first black woman to win an Emmy for lead actress in a dramatic role: “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.” 

On Hollywood and Being Fuckable

Growing up in the greater Los Angeles suburbs, where the influence of Hollywood is only a short drive away, most girls grow up with a sense of how to make oneself likeable, attractive (in appearance and personality) more importantly, likeable to people that matter. Or in a word commonly used by Hollywood producers to describe a sexually desirable woman: ‘fuckable’. Through subliminal and conscious messaging, girls from a very young age instinctively know what is attractive and what isn’t. Even people who don’t aspire to be in the Hollywood scene are heavily influenced by Hollywood’s sense of aesthetics, beauty and taste.

The actress Heather Matarazzo wrote a witty and poignant piece called ‘What the Fuck is Fuckable?’ She is relating an incident which happened to her when she was 19 years old. She was part of the development a film for two years, when they finally secured the financing for the film and two weeks before shooting was to begin, the director of the film met her a West Hollywood Starbucks to tell her that she was being let go from the lead role. He said it was the decision of the producers and not him, when she asked why,  the director told her, “They say you are not fuckable”. Boom. The reality of how business is run in Hollywood hit her square in the face. It didn’t matter she was connected to this project for two years, spent many unpaid hours toiling to get the script right, calling thousands of people to get on board with her project, did countless waitressing shifts to cover the bills so she can make the film that she wanted to make. She was dismissed with a ‘you are not fuckable’ and was given a smaller role in the film instead. She didn’t have the heart to walk away from something she has worked on for two years, something she was passionate about, so she swallowed her pride and took the smaller role.

Being ‘fuckable’ in Hollywood is a commodity. Growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles area where I am far enough away from the glitz of Hollywood but still close enough to encounter it should I wish to immerse myself in the Hollywood scene, I can fully appreciate what it’s like to be told ‘you are not fuckable’. Heather Matarazzo describes her feelings as:

…ugly, disgusting, loser, failure, DISGUSTING…. That was the biggest word. It made me feel as though people wondered why I should even be taking up space. “Who the fuck are you to be taking up space on this planet you unfuckable fucking fuck?”

Hollywood has convinced most of America on how important it is to be fuckable, regardless of your profession or age. And being fuckable isn’t as obvious as it seems. It’s more than just your looks, body type and age. It’s an embodiment of a certain lifestyle, of having a certain x-factor. I have spent a good part of my youth, though I must say most of it unconsciously to remain relevant in my mind. It was not for any particular man out there, but I wanted to be relevant in my own eyes. So I was always trim, developed tastes for the right kinds of food and drink and adopted a fashion sense that was my own (I wore all black  and I still do), it wasn’t that imaginative, but it was easy and it looked good on me and it suited my personality) and I wanted to be seen as smart so I read a lot. I wanted to know about everything so I educated myself by reading everything. I was different from most homebred California girls because I wasn’t naturally chipper and blond. I was opposite of the sunny California girl. I was blunt to a fault, sarcastic, caustic, self-deprecating and largely indifferent to what others thought of me. I honed this to perfection and it’s not too different from my nature. My version of being fuckable was to not be like every other girl out there.

Being fuckable loosely means a woman (girl) is generally sexually desired by others, mainly the opposite sex. There is something about her that elevates her from the ‘friend’ category to the fuckable category. And it doesn’t always hinge on looks, weight, height and body type. Some would argue the curvy actress Rebel Wilson is fuckable because of the sheer force of her personality but the stick thin actress with an Oscar nomination under her belt Anna Kendrick probably wouldn’t be considered fuckable. Besides being white, thin, sweet natured and good enough actress, there is no x-factor there, she blends in with the walls. Hilary Swank despite being the youngest actress to earn two lead actress Oscars, her career never took off in the stratosphere a la Julia Roberts or Scarlett Johansson fashion. Why? Because she’s not fuckable and she lacks natural movie star charisma (another factor in being fuckable). Her two Oscar wins were a combination of good acting, luck and clever campaigning by the studios. Arguably one of the greatest actresses of our time Dame Judi Dench spent the best years of her career toiling on the London stage instead of the more lucrative television or film, when asked why she didn’t venture into television and film sooner, she said when she was young, producers told her she wasn’t fuckable. Being a conservative Quaker girl, she didn’t quite know what that meant, she was after all, happily married. So she shrugged her shoulders and went back on stage to do her outstanding work. The American audiences didn’t discover her until ‘Mrs. Brown’. What a loss for the world.

My feelings about Hollywood changed with age. When I was in my early twenties, the glitz was too overwhelming for me and I knew I was never the Hollywood type nor did I wish to become one. I consumed too many carbs. I don’t like gyms or any crowded spaces with sweaty people. I didn’t wear industrial quantities of war paint and I never mastered the art of brown nosing, which is so necessary to get your foot in anywhere. I wasn’t willing to do anything to be noticed and I quite liked myself as I am and didn’t see the need to change. I ventured to Hollywood mostly to shop, meet up with friends, try new restaurants and on occasion people watch (or more like freak watch). I never watched a single movie in Hollywood or attended a movie premier as a fan.

In my thirties, my perception about Hollywood changed, I went there less frequently because I moved out of Los Angeles county when I got married. If I went to Hollywood it was usually for work assignment, job interviews or to try out new restaurants with family and friends. With the recent organic and clean eating food craze, Hollywood has adeptly rebranded itself at selling to us what is now considered fuckable. All those juice bars, organic restaurants, vegan restaurants, pilates studios, yoga studios, fancy membership only gyms, SoulCycle studios that are dotted on every street in the Hollywood area is telling people how to be fuckable now. It means you need to adopt (at least superficially) a clean living lifestyle. The Lindsay Lohan days of falling out of clubs drunk and your nether regions on full display are over. That is passe. Nightclub partying is still the cool thing to do, but to fall out of clubs drunk with your makeup smeared and you’ve got two friends propping you up as you stumble to your waiting car is no longer cool.

To be considered fuckable now, you need to be active in any one of the approved modes of physical activity (gym, yoga, pilates or SoulCycle), you need to eat organic, take up juicing and run 5 miles a day. What’s even better is if you do a magazine spread about it and how when you made an about face to your diet and lifestyle, career opportunities opened up for you too. Even the unapologetically plus-size actress Melissa McCarthy has recently dropped a huge amount of weight, she did so by adopting a healthier lifestyle. She knows she will never be the leading actress in a major blockbuster production, but if she wants to remain employed and get out of the funny, fat, best-friend rut, she needed to rebrand herself to be more fuckable and in her case, it is appearing to adopt a healthier lifestyle.

Being removed from Los Angeles for awhile, I can appreciate the allure of Hollywood with a fresh set of eyes. It’s not just the glitz and glamour of the movie stars and the movie business, it’s the whole package they are selling. The eat good, drink good, feel good so good things will come to you philosophy has young people from everywhere coming in droves. The idea that if you rebrand yourself from the cornfed and milk-fed midwestern girl to a healthy eating, green-juicing and yoga loving California girl, you will have new career opportunities open to you. Especially with reality television shows all over the airwaves right now, anyone who is willing to be the most outrageous and obnoxious versions of themselves can be rich and famous, even if just for 15 minutes.

Many starlets and movie star wannabes now want to be seen coming out of green juice bars, healthy restaurants or gyms, not so much from the trendiest clubs and if they were coming out of clubs, they are to be photographed as being sober, freshed faced (even at 1 am) and all their makeup still applied. To make it seem all they did all night was sip on water.

Many accuse Hollywood of perpetuating or instigating racism, sexism, lookism, elitism, but do they really? Hollywood is first and foremost a moneymaking enterprise. Investors and studios spend millions of dollars making films not ‘art’, you can go to a museum for art. The aim is to make more money than they invested to make the film. Hollywood films simply reflect, magnify and exaggerate what they know to already be true in society. For example: fat, opinionated and outspoken women are generally disliked and reviled. This is not new, it’s been this way since antiquity. If you, as a woman, have the temerity to be fat and not do anything about it, you best learn when to keep your mouth shut and your opinions to yourself because no one wants to hear from a fat woman. The treatment of Rosie O’Donnell is very telling of this phenomenon. When she had her own talk show, she was the funny, sweet, jovial aunt next door, always ready to poke fun at herself, at the expense of herself. When she left her talk show and begun to speak her own opinions in her natural loud-mouthed manner, she became universally reviled as the fat woman with the loud mouth. So much so when Donald Trump openly bullied and fat shamed her, almost no one came to her defense, not even her boss Barbara Walters.

One the show ‘Empire’,  actress Gabourey Sidibe was in a steamy sex scene with a slim, fit, young and handsome record producer on an open rooftop, audiences were revolted and were not afraid to express it. How dare a black fat girl have sex in the open with a slim and fit handsome man? Sidibe’s love scene immediately became a meme on twitter the next day. Jokes insulting her weight came quick and swift and they mostly ran along the lines of, someone like him would never want to be with someone like her. Gabourey Sidibe spoke up for herself and told the haters to get lost, but not many others did, especially producers or directors. If the genders were reversed, if the man was overweight but rich and holds a powerful position, and the girl is young, thin and attractive, no one would bat an eyelid. It would be considered as normal.

It is my observation that too many people ascribe too many ideals to Hollywood and the power it holds. Many expect Hollywood filmmakers to show tolerance for all types of people, to give equal opportunities to everyone, to be inclusive of everyone and everything. People expect Hollywood to lead by example because of the supposed power it holds. Hollywood’s so-called ‘power’ comes from the movie audience. It only has power if people queue up to purchase a ticket and watch a movie. Hollywood is a moneymaking enterprise, its goal is to turn a profit and it can only turn a profit if it produces what audiences wants to see, hence now we have a parade of mediocre comic book prequels and sequels.

What Hollywood’s idea of being desirable is what society generally agrees to be desirable as well. If we start with children in elementary and middle school, the popular boys are the boys who are athletic and show physical prowess in sports, the popular girls are usually the skinny pretty girls with no discernable academic or athletic talent. The children who actually accomplish at school what they are meant to accomplish and that is academic excellence, those kids are called ‘nerds’ or ‘social losers’. Of course the perfect combination is brains and athletic ability, but that is rare. Academically gifted boys are seen as nerds and social losers and academically gifted girls are seen as not fuckable, not attractive. We all have seen the smart girl dumb herself down to get the attention of the boy she likes or to get in with the cool and popular girls. Society doesn’t like smart girls and it starts young, in elementary school. Smart girls are consistently bullied, denigrated and beaten down until they lose all self-esteem and join the stupid herd.

The same is true in Hollywood. The Hollywood establishment, which mostly consists of men, don’t like women who are outspoken and demanding their fair pay and respect. Angelina Jolie was called a ‘spoiled brat’ by the top brass at Sony, for demanding the best resources be assigned to her movie. If she had been a man, she wouldn’t have been called a spoiled brat, she would have been applauded for demanding the best.

The trends in Hollywood is really a microcosm and exaggeration of the trends in society. Hollywood aims to copy and replicate what’s cool to sell tickets, not the other way around. If society decided that fat girls are more attractive and interesting than thin girls, all the curvy actresses in Hollywood will get all the plum roles. If society decided to celebrate the nice guy who finished last and in the end also got the girl by his nice and assuming manner, macho male roles in movies will be replaced by the unassuming Mr. Nice Guy.

50 Shades of Boring

The film ’50 Shades of Grey’ was released on February 13, 2015 to great fanfare and huge box office returns. Months before the film was released, the Hollywood press built it up to be one of the most scintillating and erotic films of the year. Every detail about this film was reported on with precision, from casting of the male and female lead, the director, scriptwriter and even the author herself, E.L. James and she’s also one of the producers on the film. The audience was led to believe this film will be the best original films on offer for the year 2015.

Everything was going great until the critics saw the film. Except for Dakota Johnson’s performance, everything was critically savaged. And even some of Dakota Johnson’s reviews were backhanded compliments in the vein of she’s the best thing in this hot mess of a film. The director of the film is Sam Taylor-Johnson, this is her first big budget Hollywood movie. Her previous full length feature film was ‘Nowhere Boy’ a film about the life of a young John Lennon. She was also well known figure in the London modern art world as she former wife and collaborator of art dealer Jay Jopling. She dabbled in music, directing television series and short films. Her body of work wasn’t prolific as some of the other directors on the shortlist to direct the ‘film of the year’ but she had a good reputation for her artistic integrity.

Before we talk about the film, let’s talk about the book whence it came. It was a book that was ‘e-published’ or ‘self-published’ by the British author E. L. James. I didn’t read the books but from people who did, they all told me not to bother, so I didn’t. Besides the awful prose writing, the main subject matter which features in the Christian Grey books, BDSM was poorly researched. It was little more than a bored housewife writing the stuff of her fantasy and it was poorly researched and poorly written. E.L. James, for whatever reason, struck a chord with her readers and her books took off from e-publishing to print publishing. James’s inspiration was from reading the Twilight series and it dawned on her that she too, could write. A major red flag right there, the author of the Twilight series, Stephenie Meyer is also known for her less than inspiring prose.

As soon as the film premiered, news surfaced that Sam Taylor-Johnson didn’t get along with the book’s author E.L. James, also one of the film’s producers. This isn’t surprising. Sam Taylor-Johnson being in the London fashionable art circle was quickly irritated with the bored housewife first masquerading as a book author and now a movie producer. When Taylor-Johnson was asked if she and E.L James became friends during the process of making the film, her curt answer was ‘no’, there was even no follow up of ‘but I admire her greatly’ or whatever, it was just ‘no’. E.L James was given significant creative control and direction of the film and this irritated Taylor-Johnson to no end. Shortly after the film’s release, Sam Taylor-Johnson announced she will withdraw from directing the next two films of this ‘trilogy’. No one can blame her.

The other night ’50 Shades of Grey’ was shown on HBO. So, I watched it. I already knew it was bad. The main characters lacked chemistry with each other. The script was lacking and everything else was mediocre at best. But I never expected it to be boring with a capital B. It is, after all, an almost x-rated film. The subject matter is most definitely x-rated. How can you fuck up a movie about sex? About BDSM? The stuff of people’s fantasies? Oh but fuck it up they did. Jamie Dornan, the unfortunate actor tasked to bring the enigmatic and sexy Christian Grey to life, for whatever reason (but not for lack of trying) he couldn’t bring that magic on screen. He didn’t have ‘It’. Dakota Johnson was tasked to play a boring mousy haired virgin ingenue type enchanted and intrigued with a guy who is into BDSM. She did get that job done and was fairly convincing, but it doesn’t require a great deal of acting expertise to pull that off.

The film is about a college senior, Anastasia Steele (played by Dakota Johnson) who interviews billionaire business extraordinaire Christian Grey because her friend who was supposed to conduct the interview got ill. She bombed the interview because she was intimidated by the laconic Christian Grey, who was a monosyllabic bore (but some women call that enigmatic and mysterious). But apparently Christian Grey took a shine to this average and plain Anastasia Steele and seeks her out and asks her out on a date but there is one caveat – dun dun dun. He doesn’t do romance, he’s into BDSM where he is dominant (always) and she is to be submissive and there’s a contract with excruciating details involved. The contract involves what Anastacia can eat, drink, which doctor she is to go for contraceptives and her conduct when she is not with Christian Grey. This is a exclusive relationship until Grey terminates it. But Grey consistently breaks his own rules because he falls in love with the simple and sweet Anastacia. Due to his past issues of childhood abuse, he has intimacy problems and will not allow himself to totally yield emotionally to Anastacia which upsets her. The film ends at a sort of an emotional impasse where the conclusion of their relationship isn’t defined. They still need to bore us with two more full length movies.

The film is a series of lulls of nothing happening between the non-inspiring sex and BDSM scenes. I find it hard to believe it was one of the highest grossing films in 2015. What did the wider audience see in this film? Did people not see the same movie I did? For many reasons, I’ve stopped seeing movies at the theater during opening weekend or even opening week or month. I always wait until it’s out on Netflix or even better showing on cable television since I’ve let my Netflix subscription lapse. I’ve learned to never buy into the Hollywood hype. A good movie will always be a good movie whether you see it the day it’s released or years after.

The same friend that told me to not bother reading the book or see the movie in theaters, told me there is one silver lining in this ghastly made movie, and that is it’s directed by a woman. One of the highest grossing films directed by a woman and 90% of the crew on this film are women. And the film, for all its awfulness, made money so that’s good for women in film. Perhaps, if one looks at it from that angle. But it’s also a crying shame that such talent was wasted on this film.

After seeing this film, I am happy to hear Sam Taylor-Johnson has detached herself from this project. She is far too talented of a director and artist to be associated with this sort of tripe. The new director is reportedly James Foley. I am not familiar with him or his work. I’ve never seen any of his films, but good luck to him. He’ll need it.

The Final Illness and Death of Jackie Collins

Jackie Collins died on September 19, 2015 from breast cancer. She was 77 years old. She was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer six years ago. She kept this news to herself and her immediate family only. She didn’t even tell her elder sister Joan Collins until a week ago when the end was probably near, a sister with whom she was very close. She also didn’t inform any other close members of her family besides her three daughters. She didn’t want to burden them as she knew they would be distressed and upset. She battled her disease quietly, bravely and carried on with her work and career as usual. Towards the last few months she looked more frail than usual, but most could chalk that up to age and not a terminal illness. She was, after all, in her late seventies, some signs of frailty is to be expected. The public found out about her terminal illness only 5 days prior to her death when she gave an interview to People Magazine.

I am not a Jackie Collins fan. I’ve never read her books. I know them by reputation and they were not, shall we say, Pulitzer or Nobel Prize worthy material. She sold over 500 million copies a la Barbara Cartland and Danielle Steele style, appealing to the common denominator of readers who craved romance and sex that were not found in real life. She was known as sparkling and witty personality to those who didn’t read her books, she was a lady about Tinseltown and showed up at the smartest parties. She was well liked and well loved by all that met and knew her.

In her interview with People Magazine, she gave no apologies of how she chose to handle her illness (with utmost secrecy) and cited Frank Sinatra ‘I did it my way’.

Bravo to her.

In this age of emotional incontinence, where every illness, personal failing or peccadillo is broadcasted for mass consumption by ‘celebrities’, in a cynical bid to appear ‘relatable’, just to sell their latest ware, self-help book, movie, album or just to fill up a lull in a 24 hour ‘news’ cycle, Jackie Collins’s approach was dignified and refreshing.

She wanted to battle her illness her way, in the manner that she chose. By making her illness public at the time of her diagnosis, especially with something like breast cancer, she will be subjected to all kinds of unsolicited advice of all persuasions in the medical or wellness field. Besides being bombarded with unsolicited medical or lifestyle ‘advice’, she would be obliged to take every advice thrown at her with grace and patience, or else she would look ungrateful to all the people that wish her well. As if battling cancer isn’t arduous enough already, she’s got to plaster on a smile for every person who feel compelled to give her advice. So she saved herself the agony and told no one outside of her immediate family. Good for her.

As her tributes and condolences make its way to the airwaves, one can be sure that there will be some mumblings as to why she chose to hide her illness from everyone. After all, she’s not known as a woman that shunned publicity, in fact quite the opposite, she basked in the limelight when she sold her latest books and didn’t seem bothered by it.

In this day and age where a few empty headed people with a poor grasp of English grammar from the Jersey Shore can sit around a house and do nothing all day and get wasted at night and become ‘legitimate’ celebrities flogging clothing lines, makeup and self-tanning lotions, simply because they are able to make a complete fool of themselves on camera, society has lost all sense of what’s for the public domain and what should remain private. With the trend of reality TV shows, where the only talent required is the willingness to make an absolute ass of yourself on television and in that process reveal everything about yourself without any consideration for its appropriateness, Jackie Collins’s quiet dignity in battling her life threatening illness is worthy of praise.

While she was battling her illness, it’s not as though she’s shut herself inside her mansion and waited for the end to come. Absolutely not, during her illness, she has:

Written five books since the diagnosis, I’ve lived my life, I’ve travelled all over the world, I have not turned down book tours and no one has ever known until now when I feel as though I should come out with it,” said Collins, whose treatments over the years included a lumpectomy, radiation and various drug courses and combinations.
“Now I want to save other people’s lives.”

Her courage and example is a lesson to young people today of how one should handle life’s adversities and that spilling your guts to anyone who will listen may not always be the best. The old fashion value of personal restraint can still be of value in the social media and internet age. It didn’t die with our grandmother’s generation.

Some would argue that Jackie Collins being a celebrity, by making her illness public, she could help others. Perhaps. But breast cancer, unfortunately, isn’t a rare disease and a lot of awareness has already been made about it. Whether Jackie Collins made her illness and her treatments public or not won’t really change the discussion about breast cancer much.

Perhaps it was her stiff upper lip or her English upbringing of not making a big fuss about oneself that kept her from disclosing her illness. Whatever the reasons, it was dignified, beautiful and rare in this age of gross boundaryless oversharing. It was a dignified end to an extraordinary life.

Judging from her last interview, despite her fame and the riches that came with it, she knew what was truly important, and that’s her family. In her final days, she only thought of her children and grandchildren and worried that they might miss her and she reassures them that she will always be there for them regardless if her physical body is on this earth or not.

She did it her way. Bravo. RIP Jackie Collins.

Ashley Madison…Shhhhh

On to a less serious subject today, the database of Ashley Madison was hacked and the identities of 32-40 million subscribers of Ashley Madison has been made public. Depending on where you sit, this is either something hilariously gleeful to laugh at or you might be worried your dirty little secret will be found out by your spouse. I belong to the former camp but not for reasons one might think, and no, I am not on Ashley Madison. Let’s get that cleared up.

At the very least, there is a sense of poetic justice for the cheaters and ‘aint’ karma a bitch’ type of schadenfreude. I love it all. Seeing unfaithful spouses quaking in their boots, it’s got to bring a smile to someone’s face, especially someone like me, with a misanthropic view of life and people.

The icing on top has got to be that Joshua Duggar of THE Duggar family has had several subscriptions to Ashley Madison requesting for all kinds of kinky stuff that isn’t allowed in his Christian upbringing. So add to the list of his ‘sins’, he’s also an adulterer or an attempted adulterer.

Ashley Madison is a website where married people go if they want to engage in an affair that is fleeting and no strings attached. This is to prevent ‘bunny boiler’ situations that could arise should someone decide to take the risk and go out and find their own third parties for affairs. It is explicit for members of Ashley Madison that everyone subscriber is aware that this is a discreet, hush-hush, no strings attached situation and the founders of this service setup this website so that ‘like-minded’ people can meet in a discreet manner with minimal disruption to their marriages.

When the website was first launched, it incited outrage from all sides, the Christian fundamentalists, scorned girlfriends and wives, self-appointed do gooders all say that this is the beginning of the real moral decline of American. It’s encouraging people to have affairs and it’s available at their fingertips. The founder, Noel Biderman, who, ironically is happily married, disagreed, he said he was just being entrepreneurial in the digital age and providing a service. People engage in affairs anyways, he didn’t invent infidelity, it’s the oldest sin in the world, he just provided a safe discreet environment for people to carry out their affairs and alleviate the boredom and ennui that eventually comes with marital bliss. Statistics show very few people actually leave their spouses for their lovers, so why not do it with minimal disruption.

Depending on one’s life experiences, it dictates how one views cheating and extramarital affairs. I never suffered the ignominy of being the scorned wife or girlfriend and I have never been in the unfortunate position of being jilted for someone else. Perhaps I was cheated on by college boyfriends (rumor mill), but I didn’t care about the person or relationship enough to have a severe emotional reaction. I had always been quite confident about myself in the relationship department and if someone were to leave me for another, it’s more of his loss than mine and I would wish them well. Jealousy and envy are debasing emotions for me and even if I were to feel them, I’d do my best job at being nonchalant about it all. Me and the green eyed monster do not get along at all and I avoid that green eyed monster like the plague.

Many TV shows, talk shows, books, magazine articles, scientific essays have written about infidelity and cheating, why do people cheat? Why do people in seemingly happy marriages cheat? Why am I not good enough? How to affair proof your marriage/relationship? Blah Blah. To me, the answer is simple, because they want to and they can, most think they can get away with it and many do. And also because people suck. The ones that get caught or found out are usually bad at hiding their tracks. Some decide to ‘unburden’ themselves to ease their conscience and then they find out it was so not worth the confession, especially when the affair was over and done with.

There are also some people who won’t cheat regardless of how miserable their marriage is because it’s undignified behavior and they hold themselves to a higher standard. It doesn’t mean they don’t think about it, but thinking and doing are two totally different things. And those that don’t cheat aren’t morally better either, it’s simply, in this circumstance, cheating isn’t an option but everything else may be. Not cheating doesn’t mean they won’t behave badly in other ways. They could be emotionally withdrawn, abrasive, behaving in passive aggressive or aggressive ways, nit-picking their spouse to death, bitch and moan about every little thing, every other kind of shitty behavior besides cheating. Is that better than going out and having an affair? That depends on the person. I like to be left the hell alone, so if you are unhappy and I don’t do it for you anymore, by all means.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am married. I was married in the Catholic church with full Catholic rites. It was our choice. I took my wedding vows seriously and we did all the things the Catholic church requires of us in order to be married in the church. My husband and I are not naive people, I was 29 when I married him and he was older than me, we both knew it wasn’t going to be a cakewalk. We both have strong personality types and many personality traits that leave a lot be desired. So, to make this work, we needed Divine guidance, at least I did. It was an ‘as God is my witness’ moment.

We were and are totally in love, but we are also pragmatic. Within a marriage shit happens, people change, priorities change, children change the relationship dynamics and a whole host of things can go wrong, in fact, very little can go right. And love does not conquer all. I knew that ‘forever’ doesn’t always mean forever. We also decided early on in our relationship that cheating is not an option and that the marriage is over if anyone cheated. This is not to say we are more ‘in love’ than the next couple but that this was our commitment to each other. If our marriage is to end, it would end in a dignified and respectful manner.

Divorce isn’t completely off the table either, and it’s been considered during rough times. My husband would say it out loud and I’d quietly agree wishing we were divorced right then and there so that this god-awful conversation would end, then it would blow over and life goes on. But I wonder how many times we can do this, and I don’t know if each time divorce is discussed I am mentally preparing myself more should it actually happen. This may run contrary to our church’s teachings and intention for marriage as being a lifelong endeavor, but again, our pragmatism informs us that there is no need to squeeze a square peg in a round hole and cause ourselves a lifetime of misery just because we are Catholic and got married in the church.

Marriage and relationships are mysterious things, there are people that met when they were 16, took one look at each other, got married and stayed married for 50 years. When people ask couples who’ve marked their silver or golden anniversary on what their ‘secret’ is, it invariably sounds like this: ‘don’t go to bed angry, be a good friend to your spouse, compromise’ and from the guys ‘listen to what she (his wife) says’ and it’ll work out. These sound deceptively simple, but each item is loaded with its own difficulties and I am not one to put on a happy face when I am not. I stopped that shit a long time ago.

To be cheated on holds its own stigma and shame. It means that one is not good enough in some way and for every person it’s different but the feeling of hurt, rejection and pain is the same.

Dan Savage, a relationship columnist and expert has some good advice for those who wish to check on the released list of Ashley Madison database to see if their spouse’s names are on there, he has this to say: An Open Letter to People Thinking About Checking to See if Their Husbands or Wives Were On Ashley Madison, my favorite advice is advice #2 – the fakes and flakes. It should put the minds of many spouses at ease.

The Re-Awakening: Still Smells Like Teen Spirit

At the recommendation of a good friend, I watched Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. She was a late discoverer of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana and their seminal album ‘Nevermind’ and by late, I mean now, in year 2015, after the release of Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. Like all Gen Xers, the album ‘Nevermind’ and especially the song ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ spoke to me, put into words how I felt about my surroundings, my family, my elders, my education (or lack of) and how it was all a load of crap. Teenage angst expressed at its finest. In 1991, I was only just a preteen but due to certain situations thrust upon me, I felt a lot older than my years. It was considered inappropriate material for my age, but I was able to get my hands on a copy of the album and like millions of people then, it’s was like being slapped awake by the truth and that we are all being lied to by the Establishment.

Of course adding to the allure of the album and the music was the troubled and turbulent private life of Nirvana’s lead singer Kurt Cobain. He was grungy looking, which by now had become a fashion trend. He was very handsome with delicate features and would be more noticeable if he would only shower, shave and comb his hair once a fortnight. His wife Courtney Love described him as being better looking than Brad Pitt but not knowing it. He came from a broken home and was ’embarrassed’ about his parent’s divorce and since the age of 9, he was basically off the rails. By the time he became famous, he was a habitual drug user and not particularly repentant about it. He suffered from anxiety, depression and severe stomach pains that went undiagnosed his whole life, which he used heroin to dull the pain and of course to numb his psychic pain. And like so many others before him, at the age 27, it all came crashing down and he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head on April 8, 1994, he left behind his wife Courtney Love and his 20 month old daughter Frances Cobain. It was all over for him. Like those before him, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, all perished at the age of 27. Some believe the age of 27 is a curse, but it really isn’t, the human body and psyche can only take so much abuse and for these individuals (and Amy Winehouse after them), their bodies and minds simply gave out at age 27. There’s no curse or cosmic conspiracy, it’s biology.

Kurt Cobain is forever transfixed in our collective imaginations as a troubled 27 year old who never beat his demons, never found his happy ending to his troubled life. To his fans he will forever be the wild-eyed man-child with a blond mane, who looks as if he rarely showered or shaved. During the height of grunge fashion, personal hygiene became optional because Kurt Cobain made it cool to look unkempt. Almost every minute of his short tragic life has been discussed, analyzed and dissected ad nauseum, many attribute his sadness and final downfall on his family and his wife, very few people actually held the man himself accountable for his own feelings, behaviors and getting treatment for his medical conditions (mental and physical) – he certainly could afford it. And because his life ended so early, in a way he never grew up and so there was no need to hold him accountable.

As a fan of Kurt Cobain and his music, and as a fan who did ‘grow up’, I will attempt to hold him accountable for his own actions. I will pretend that he did get to live to be middle age and actually grew up (mentally). In the Montage of Heck, by all accounts, his troubles stemmed from the divorce of his parents, it was a particularly nasty divorce and it forever shattered the image of the ‘perfect’ family he had in his head. His father made the mistake of telling his son that he won’t ever remarry but eventually did when he met his stepmother. She had 2 children from a previous marriage and had one more child with Kurt Cobain’s father. Due to his difficult temperament, his mother gave up custody of him. His father’s new wife attempted to be a good maternal guidance to him but because he was bullying the other kids, she had no choice but to ask him to leave. For awhile, he was bounced around between relatives and basically stayed with whomever would take him in. It was at this time he begun to suffer from depression and anxiety and had already attempted suicide by laying down by the train tracks. No one much noticed or cared about the reasons behind his bad behavior and wrote him off as a lost cause. His performance at school was poor but showed a great gift in art and writing. On top of his mental illnesses, he had undiagnosed stomach pains that plagued him his whole life. He dulled his pain (physical and mental) with drugs and alcohol. The drugs went from pot smoking to ultimately heroin. He became a hopeless addict and he knew it. In fact he ‘chose’ to become an addict. After the success of ‘Nevermind’, he basically shut himself in his house and did drugs, during which time he had a baby too.

On what planet did he and Courtney Love think that being junkies and having a child is a good combination, I shall never know. They were very wealthy by then and could do as they pleased. When they did a joint interview with Vanity Fair Magazine, admitting to their junkie lifestyle and Courtney Love admitted to using heroin while pregnant which then raised an alarm with social services, she herself received a lot of criticism from fans and public alike. Nirvana fans in particular never liked her, felt her to be an opportunistic groupie who ensnared a vulnerable man, so this was a chance to jump on the Courtney Love hate wagon: she shot up heroin while pregnant, so she’s a horrible person. She clarified in this film that she did use heroin while pregnant with Frances but just once and Frances was born healthy, and to be fair to them, regardless of their personal state, their daughter Frances was always a healthy cherubic child who was not neglected, as evidenced by video footage and photos. I will not attempt to analyze their relationship, as marriage between 2 people is very complicated, what is clear is that the marriage was mutually reciprocated, it was not a case of Courtney Love ensnaring a vulnerable man who was powerless to resist her, he was a full participating partner in the marriage. Kurt Cobain himself was very ‘upset’ with all the criticisms hurled at his wife, with people saying ‘mean’ things about her. Well dear, you can’t go on the record for a national publication admitting that a) you are junkies and proud of it, b) your wife admitting to using heroin while pregnant and then complain that people have an opinion about that. Do what you will with yourself but harming an unborn child is unacceptable even in very liberal musician’s circles. This shows extreme lack of maturity on his part, kind of like a stroppy teenager who didn’t get his way. However, the public’s idolization of him was such that he could do no wrong and it was all his wife’s fault.

For a boy so traumatized like Kurt Cobain was, it’s hard to find a light at the end of the tunnel and had he just lived the life of a boy with no high school diploma and worked dead end jobs, his end by self-infliction isn’t entirely unlikely. His mother Wendy wisely observed that he won’t cope well with sudden fame, and he didn’t. He didn’t mind enjoying the spoils of fame, namely the riches that came with it, but again, he failed to man up and realize that one cannot happen without the other. He had resources at his disposal and could have gotten help with his various issues, and he knew he needed help, but he chose to be a junkie. It was a deliberate choice on his part. All the money and energy he spent on doing drugs could have been better spent by helping himself, finding a diagnosis for his stomach ailment, getting therapy or rehab for his substance dependency, living an all around better life. He had a chance to reform himself and he chose not to.

All the stroppy teenagers who listened to ‘Nevermind’ know eventually we have to grow up, we can’t be irresponsible, sullen and stroppy forever, and ‘Nevermind’ captured brilliantly the sentiments of a kid coming of age in the 1990s, I listened to it with devotion and fervor, it was the Gospel truth, held in regard with the absolute certainty that it spoke my truth, the Truth. And it did, for that moment in my life. Every time I hear any Nirvana song come on the radio now, I have happy memories and still know the melodies and the words. But eventually and very reluctantly, I put on my big girl pants, grew up and dealt with this pesky thing called ‘life’. It wasn’t fun all the time, but it wasn’t so bad either. With age and maturity, what seemed unsurmountable at 15 or 16 becomes a minor inconvenience at age 25. Of course the biggest tragedy of his suicide is depriving his little girl Frances Cobain a father. For all his troubles, even in an altered state, with his limitations, he adored his little girl and loved being a father. It was his dream to be a father but he chose to end it all, thinking he was no good for his daughter in his present state. How wrong he was, as the old adage goes, ‘a bad father is better than no father’. And he wasn’t even a bad father, he was just ill and if he cleaned up and got himself sorted, he could have been a great father. But he never got to know that and that’s the real tragedy.

#MadMenFinale – The End of Nostalgia

From 1946 to 1970 is a time that modern Americans look upon as the modern golden age. Jobs were plenty, productivity was high and America was recovering nicely from World War II and the Great Depression. We were also in the middle of a baby boom, a population explosion that gave rise to counterculture that followed. The ‘baby boomers’ are still referred to as this monolithic age group that changed the face of America. Most baby boomers recall their childhood through rose tinted lenses and if you were white, middle-class, you were alright. It was a time in history where everyone and everything knew its place, no one to disrupt the social order.

Well, Matthew Weiner blew that notion out of the water for us with show Mad Men which begun in 1960. Housewives were not happy to just be housewives. The only jobs available to women were secretarial and clerical work which opened women up to all sorts to sexual harassment. We today take for granted our much more civilized office culture, at least between the genders. Women in the workplace in the 1960s were groped, petted and basically molested on a continual basis. The only women that were left alone were women of a certain age where they were no longer attractive to men anymore. If a woman wasn’t being groped or petted, she’s being told how to dress, to hike up her skirt, to take down the neckline as though she were some circus act.

The men, however, on the surface look like they are having a grand old time at work, where drinking begins at noon and ends into the wee hours of the night, but they face incredible pressures to succeed to provide for their families. Married women didn’t work then and so it was up to the man to bring home the bacon. So the pressure to stay on top of your profession is relentless. It’s created this scenario where husband and wives though share the same roof but are living parallel lives. The wives are bored to death with the minutia of domesticity and the husbands are under constant stress and anxiety to perform at work. And the children are stuck somewhere in the middle, existing between two unhappy parents, suffering from benign neglect.

Mad Men showed that people are just people, regardless of what era they are from. The frustrations, unhappiness, successes and triumphs are the same. There was no golden age. The so-called economic golden age only applied to white men, women and all other minorities did not benefit from the economic boom of the 50’s and 60’s. One thing that was glaringly obvious was the lack of black people in important positions besides the janitorial staff, elevator operator and secretary. The secretary was promoted to head of HR by Joan Harris and that was about it. Sterling Cooper didn’t bother to sign companies that catered to black people and they treat Jewish people like they are from outer space. The believed that Jewish people sell stuff just to each other and they get Jewish ad agencies to represent them, so when Rachel Menken wanted to make an appointment to take tje department store Menken’s to the next level, they were confused. They even paid some guy to be ‘David Cohen’ from the art department to sit in on the meeting. The whole thing was a farce. Though that didn’t stop Don Draper from having an affair with Rachel Menken, when Don Draper asked Rachel about Israel and how to advertise Israeli tourism, she told him to ‘crack open a book’ once in awhile and wondered aloud if she was the only Jewish person he knew.

Watching the show also made me grateful. Grateful that I am Gen X and that the women that came before me had to endure this type of indignity so that I didn’t have to. But I am most grateful to Matthew Weiner for putting an end to the nostalgia of the ‘Mad Men’ period, because when you dissect it and look closer, there is nothing nostalgic or sentimental about it.

#MadMenFinale – The End of Don Draper

The creator of Mad Men has created one of the most compelling characters to grace the TV screens in recent times: the character of Donald Draper. On the surface, the anti-hero Don Draper seems like another TV character cliche, a man that every man wants to be and every woman wants to be with. But once you peel back the layers, it’s much more complex than that.

First of all, Don Draper isn’t who he says he is, he assumed the identity of his commanding officer in the Korean War by switching their dog tags after the real Lt. Donald Draper was killed in a bombing raid it was believed that Dick Whitman (his real identity) was killed. The coffin that was sent home to the Whitman family farm contained the body of Lt. Donald Draper. From then on ‘Dick Whitman’ was dead and ‘Donald Draper’ was reborn. The new Don Draper set about reinventing himself, from a poor farm boy to a sophisticated city dweller. He reinvents himself by slowly chipping away the pieces of him that represented his old life, the small rural and provincial worldview was gone, the devoutly Christian persona is gone and finally, the small subtle mannerisms that give away his humble roots were all slowly chipped away. He gets himself a job as an advertising man on Madison Avenue in New York City. He was making good money and marries a beautiful Grace Kelly lookalike and starts a family with her, never informing her of his real identity.

Even the best kept secrets have ways of exposing themselves, from long lost relatives finding him and bumping into people that knew him as Dick Whitman but more importantly himself, his own worst enemy. Dick Whitman lives in his head and at times is screaming to get out. Don Draper soon realizes that it’s not so easy to live the life of someone else, even if it’s the one of your dreams. When you deny your authentic self, no matter how awful and how much you hate that ‘self’, the psychological turmoil and the price you pay as a result of that is far worse than your jealous colleague finding out your real name.

One of the great ironies in the show is that whenever someone of importance finds out Donald Draper’s real identity, Draper wasn’t met with the scorn of being a ‘whore-child’ or stealing the identity of another that he anticipated. Even more shocking, no one cared to report him to the authorities either, people are more angry that he lied about his identity, not the reason behind it. Anyone can understand or empathize why someone like a ‘Dick Whitman’, if given the opportunity would want to change everything about himself, even if they don’t agree with it. What most people cannot tolerate, especially those close to him is the lie. And time and again, Don Draper fails to realize that. The reactions to people finding out about him goes from nonchalant, sadness, pity, understanding, empathy and of course anger. Only one person, his jealous colleague Pete Campbell threatened to expose him but it backfired badly.

When Bert Cooper, Don Draper’s boss, a managing partner of Sterling Cooper found out about his real identify  because of the vindictive Pete Campbell (the jealous colleague) told Bert Cooper that Don Draper isn’t who he says he is; Bert Cooper’s reaction is ‘so what?’ He then quoted some Eastern philosopher about taking the person standing in front of them as they are, and even gave Don Draper the opportunity to fire Pete Campbell.

Betty Draper: his first wife, when she found out his real identity, she was of course angry but mostly at the lie. When she found out why, she felt badly for him. And when she found out that his little brother Adam killed himself because Don Draper rejected him, she felt sad for him, that his only blood relative has died. His other work colleagues reacted in half disbelief, half bemusement, but none of them took him to task about it. He was good at his job and if he says he is Don Draper now then he is Don Draper.

Megan Draper: his second wife, she knew of his identity from the outset, and understood why and was fully accepting of it. During their divorce she threw it in his face (“everything about you is fake”) only because she was angry at his many betrayals but none to do with him assuming another man’s identity.

Sally Draper: his daughter, she found out his real past in bits and pieces and again, she’s more angry at walking in on her father in bed with another woman that isn’t his wife than anything else.

The second storyline in Mad Men is Don Draper’s complicated relationships with the women in his life. He’s mostly betrayed them in one way or another. It’s not just that he is a philanderer and broke his marriage vows and many hearts, but when he wasn’t philandering, he was emotionally unavailable and unsupportive of their personal endeavors if it didn’t include him. He routinely belittled Betty Draper making her feel stupid and insignificant. And if he was available, it’s because he needed something from Betty, namely sex or needing her to be arm candy at his work functions. The betrayal to Betty Draper is especially poignant because she was the first person to love him unconditionally, she wasn’t perfect, she had plenty of issues of her own but she loved him. She took care of him gave him a family that he lacked and craved, overlooked all the things that didn’t add up about him but finally had to divorce him if she wanted to preserve any shred of dignity or self-respect. Betty Draper coming from an upper-class and well-to-do family, her father and brother wasted no time pointing out the things in which were wrong with Don Draper, namely the lack of family, which they found to be extremely suspect. Betty Draper overlooked all of that because she loved him.

Sally Draper offered him the unconditional love only a child can and all he had to do there was not screw it up too badly but he couldn’t manage that as well. Sally walked in on him in bed with the neighbor’s wife, who’s child she’s friends with. In that second, it became clear to Sally what went wrong with her parent’s marriage. For the first time saw the true colors of her father, but in spite of that, she still loved him as only children can.

Megan Draper was his second chance at life, at righting past wrongs particularly in the marriage department. Megan was more worldly than the younger and more naive Betty Draper but Megan, like Betty, loved him absolutely and unconditionally. Megan was an excellent step-mother to his children and the children adored her. She was not the jealous or the petty type and was able to provide everything Don Draper needed from a woman: sex, total undivided attention, support, adoration and adulation and crucially personal space. Megan was able to focus all her attention on him and fill that void of the sad little boy needing his mother, but again, he couldn’t help himself and betrayed her trust, their marriage and everything else. Megan’s knight in shining armor became an “old and sloppy” liar.

The two women that he didn’t betray were Peggy Olsen and Joan Harris. Peggy was his secretary who showed a gift for copywriting. He promoted her to be a copywriter very soon after she joined Sterling Cooper as a junior secretary but when Peggy suddenly disappeared from work one day, he tracked her down at a hospital and found out she had a child out of wedlock, gave him up for adoption and was in a very poor mental state. He told her to forget about the whole episode like it never happened and come back to work, it’s the only way forward (which by the way, is the Draper motto). He saved her job for her and took her under his tutelage and never mentioned the episode again to her or anyone else. It’s also worth mentioning he never slept with her. So, it proves that Don Draper knows right from wrong and has the ability to discern the difference but most of the time chooses not to.

Joan Harris was the head secretary at Sterling Cooper and in a particularly unedifying episode, she was pimped out (literally) to a client to secure his business. She was told that she’d be rewarded handsomely for it, including a minority, non-silent, ownership (a condition she insisted on) in the company but she had do the ‘deed’ with a disgusting, balding, lecherous old man (it wouldn’t have been ok if she was pimped out to a young handsome man either – just for the record). She was divorced by this time and had a young son to support on her own. She looked at it as securing her son’s future to make the whole thing less wretched. The show’s creator and writer Matt Weiner beautifully illustrated the hypocrisy of the men that supposedly ‘loved’ and ‘cared’ for Joan by not opposing to have her be pimped out. Her former lover and the biological father of her son Roger Sterling was in on the conspiracy of silence. Don Draper was against it, saying he’d rather lose the business than make Joan Harris do that and was rather disgusted and appalled when Pete Campbell made the suggestion and Don Draper is rarely ever disgusted or appalled about anything. But when decision time came around, Don Draper was conveniently out of the office and the decision was made without his presence, when he found out it was too late. He personally went to Joan’s apartment to let her know that he was totally against this and it was done behind his back. Joan’s patted his cheek and said “who knew you were one of the good ones”.

In the final episode, all of Don Draper’s goodbyes were done by phone. His goodbye to a dying Betty Draper Francis (she remarried) was sad, poignant and appropriate. They didn’t say much to each other, but through choked tears and monosyllables, all the feelings and emotions between them were conveyed and they understood each other perfectly and I’d like to think that all that happened between them had been forgotten and forgiven. His goodbye with Megan Draper was him writing her a one million dollar check as their final divorce settlement and apology for all the wrong he’s done her. Finally, he chose Peggy Olson as his ‘confessor’: the lone woman that he not only did not betray but helped achieve her potential without asking for anything in return, the one person where he can look back and actually feel good about how he treated her. When Peggy asks him “What did you do that was so terrible?”, his reply was short but all encompassing, “I broke all my vows, I scandalized my child. I took another man’s name. And made nothing of it”. That right there sums up his life’s sins. For all his advertising genius of inventing slogans that neatly sum up how people should feel when eating, drinking or using a certain product, he failed to realize one of life’s most basic principles to self fulfillment, happiness and contentment and that is to be the best version of yourself. In short, be a good and honest person with integrity, whether as Don Draper or Dick Whitman, it won’t matter.