Triple Feature on the Down and Out

“Nicholas, a thing you should know: Excuses are for the weak.”

At an unpaid job, it’s easy to find yourself somewhere stuck in adolescence at the same time as you might be trying to free yourself from it.

After all, you’ve just spent the majority of your life at this point referring to your superiors (teachers, professors) as Mr. and Mrs. and Ms. (or later as merely, “Professor”), all as part of a system of pedagogy that seems to ensconce you in its own rules separate from reality.

The transition from school to unpaid work then is different from a job, where addressing your bosses like you once addressed those old superiors only entrenches their perception of your stance in adolescence, while you are simultaneously guided from that stance.

Thus the security guard, among many others at my work, had taken up a mentorship of me, that included such bits, as the phrase about excuses.

I think at the time, the phrase was meant for a failure to deliver a package.

But I feel it draw on.

***

I’ve found myself not writing and not for lack of things to write about.

I’ve been seeing films at the New York Film Festivals, plays on Broadway and downtown and living life at a general pace.

If this blog is mostly comprised of the write-able moments from my life, then I haven’t been at a lack for them.

Monday evening, I returned to Planet Rose Karaoke with a mix of shame and uneasiness. I had skipped a week again, after not being able to go for so long due to my play. Not only I had skipped the week though, but I had also missed my friend Colin The Bartenders’s birthday, who I consider my friend due to our mutual affinity for Karaoke and the compassion that he would show for Rob or J-Sam and I on a slow-down Monday afternoon.

Then again, it’s always hard to gauge with people who are paid to be friendly to you (or paid to sell drinks or both).

But either way, he’d invited me to his birthday party and I had flaked out and not gone and instead come crawling back to his establishment.

But as I talked to Colin he accepted my apology and I as sat there and did my first song and friends poured in, I felt a flash or a convulsion through my body, a slight spasm or charge of energy.

A sense of uneasiness flaring up as it left my body, a sigh.

Finally at Karaoke again, as I waved from some light Beatles to Neil Young to Springsteen, finally, I was at home.

***

Or the day I went to go see a Triple Feature on Faith, consisting of A Serious Man, The Invention of Lying and Anvil!: The Story of Anvil.

A Serious Man, I saw with my mother and Eva, after a lunch with waiter service at Katz’s on a busy Saturday morning, the first I’d ever had for waiter service. For me going to Katz’s personally, it was always more satisftying to get your sandwich from the guys at the counter, preferably the old Russian Jew who seemed both worn and timeless. It satisfied that New Yorker element in me that wanted personalization, attention and that satisfying sense of oversight, as if the sandwich maker was working for you personally, in your one-man-enclave of meat.

Still, the ‘rents were taking me out and a lunch at Katz’s is a lunch at Katz’s and was particularly appropriate for that movie.

A Serious Man was the most Jewish film I had ever seen, in more ways than one.

My mother had told me, after the film, that somehow, a friend of my grandmother, the Time critic Richard Corliss, had found the movie “anti-semitic”, a claim I find both difficult to understand and oddly fitting with the film.

You see, for all you goy readers out there, A Serious Man is very much about the questioning nature of being Jewish and the way that life can be interpreted. As a story, it can be seen as a retelling of the book of Job, with the suffering of a righteous Jewish man before the whims of G-d. However, as a film it reads like a Jewish text, with many questions poised to the viewer, ethical and otherwise.

Even from the prologue we are given a whopper:

Was the husband, attempting kindness, right in the prologue? Or was the wife right in her attempt to defend her family?

Either a way a man is dead and it is left for G-d to judge.

Which is the point of the film, as beautifully illustrated in the story of “The Goy’s Teeth” (The Sheherazzad of the film). God is unknowable, his workings a question, the answers to which we create in our decisions in our existence.

This is not an easy thing to accept, or even a rational one, but it is a very Jewish thing.

Which is probably why, in The Invention of Lying, a very un-Jewish film, religion is posed as a massive lie of useless proprotions.

The first film directed by Ricky Gervais (The Office, Extras), the story is a parable unsure of its own meaning. It tellls of a world where everyone tells the truth, unable to lie even by omission, talking incessantly even when irking other people.

As a concept, this should be close to my heart, but on screen it gets tired fast and when the movie veers into Gervais (the main character) inventing religion as part of his sole capacity to lie, it becomes as saddled with concepts it can’t handle as was The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by its unwieldy invocation of Hurricane Katrina.

For The Invention of Lying, religion is just another lie people would rather cling to than the unfortunate circumstances of “the truth”. But part of the failing of that film is that faith in itself is not a lie, but a gamble. When there is no certainty people try to find a concrete answer (the search in A Serious Man), but the absence of an answer is not a meaningless void, but a vast, unknowable expanse (think glass half-empty/half-full). In Lying, Gervais attaches his pessimism awkwardly to a standard “rom-com” shell, but his failure is to understand the forces he wrestles with.

In the final film of the triple-feature, Anvil!: The Story of Advil, possibly the best film of the three, seen lying in bed with my girlfriend on VH1, using the Time Warner Cable “Start Over” feature, we finally get characters comfortable with their faith and place in the world.

Lead singer Steve “Lips” Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner, are best friends, Canadian Jews and what would be referred to explicitly by most people as “failures”. Once grouped among bands like Led Zeppelin and Metallica, their band “Anvil” now only supports them through three-quater-empty European bars and small-but-dedicated parties around their native cold home. To support himself, “Lips” is forced to work as a porter in a catering service that supplies middle and pre-schools with their bland, pre-packaged lunches.

Despite intense oblivion and ignominy though, the band still acts like a band, replete with the love and fighting, wives kids and dedicated fans that a band that released an album called “Metal on Metal” should have. Some could say these two long-haired, mostly ridiculous Jews are fools or throw-backs, high-school dropouts who barely seem to function in the real world. But much like The Mountain Goats’ song “The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out Of Denton”, even in their 50s, these fellows are convinced they are headed for “stagelights and leerjets and fortune and fame”.

To this end they pursue their goals doggedly, at times pathetically, but never with a lack of enthusiasm or heart.

To this end any success they have is a genuine one, as a reward for their faith.

This is most eloquently expressed in an interview where Robb recalls his dead father, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor, who supported him when he dropped out of school to become a drummer. When he saw his son’s enthusiasm for drumming, he dropped his original insistence that his son go to college. “Just do whatever makes you happy.” Robb tells us. A cliche, but one that is pregnant with the faith of multiple generations.

Rock, like Judaism and Baseball, is a religion and Anvil! is a religious movie in the best sense, a companion piece to A Serious Man and a response to the cynicism of The Invention of Lying. Because, for Lips and Robb, no matter what G-d or man throws at this band, they make their own answers and keep on rocking.

***

Yesterday, I realized that I couldn’t write new pages for my script because I no longer had a functioning copy of Final Draft (I’d lost my old one when I went from PC to Mac).

I guess that’s when this all crystalized for me the sense that I was making excuses in my life, as the security guard had attempted to inform me upon my package-ery.

The sense of disappointment in myself snowballed from a question of disappointing the people at my writing group, to whether I would lose my ability as a writer along with my adolescence to whether I was self-destructing as a person and destroying my future in a mass that overwhelmed logic.

But as I talk about Katz’s Deli and Karaoke and seeing movie after movie about faith, it strikes me that the cure for excuses is action, as my security guard would tell me.

And that the only way to cure a guilt caused by lack of writing, is to begin writing.

And thus, here I am.

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4 Responses to Triple Feature on the Down and Out

  1. Katy says:

    As my mother, the wanna be writer would say, “practice makes perfect.” You are already a writer, you just need to keep doing it. I might not always “get you” like the gallery girls from the play, but I do enjoy your voice.

    K

  2. Lisa says:

    “Nicholas, a thing you should know: Excuses are for the weak.”
    Write, my dear. Write.

  3. Langston says:

    Like your comments about how religion is treated differently in each of the films. I was re-watching Six Feet Under lately and I was struck by how one of the most unique parts of the show is that unlike most television it explores religion in more ways than just as a joke, a lie, a corrupt institution or a boring obligation.

  4. cecile says:

    i wish i’d be credited for musical introductions…

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