Saturday, November 11, 2006

Where Has The Laughter Gone?

Try as I might, I cannot shake the anxiety I feel on behalf of my son. He's currently going through some kind of emotional transition, his tall, lanky body still growing, making him clumsy and uncoordinated, which doesn't help his self-image. He's isolated from most of his peers, which doesn't bother me all that much (hell, I'm isolated from many of my peers, and glad of it), but it bothers him, and for good reason -- the boy's 10-years-old. He tries to reach out and belong, and apart from one or two other boys, the majority of his class seems to view him as weird and not part of their circles. This was confirmed by his teacher to the wife and me the other day, and it just sank my heart. I was on the verge of tears. He's such a sweet, straightforward kid. Maybe that's his problem.

He's been participating in a weekly, after-school basketball clinic, hoping that this might help win him some friends. He certainly has the height for the game, being one of the tallest boys on-court. But he doesn't have the competitive drive. It's just not in him. Plus, he's all elbows and knees when running the court, bumping into other players, dribbling the ball off his foot, and so on. This of course elicits put-downs from the more advanced boys, and when he tells me about this, I feel horrible inside.

"Are you sure you want to keep doing this, son? It doesn't sound like much fun."

"It's okay, Dad. I don't mind it."

"I don't believe you. It would bother me."

"I screw up sometimes. It's no big deal."

"Please be honest with me."

"I am being honest, Dad."

Is he? I really can't tell. The boy has such pride that he would never admit to feeling insecure on this front. But then again, as the wife reminds me, our son feels very secure within the family fold, which has, save for a few brutal months in '99, remained solid. Around the house and in the yard, the boy smiles, laughs, romps about, when not playing video games or watching, for the umpteenth time, "The Mask Of Zorro". At school, however, he displays nervousness and anxiety, unconsciously chewing on his shirt until the neckline is drenched. Yet he's doing well in class, especially when it comes to writing stories and reports. His teacher, the same one he had for third grade who really empathizes with him, has marveled about his imagination and narrative skills. Which doesn't surprise us -- our son is very conceptual in his thinking. This hurts him now with his classmates, but as I keep telling him, in time it will work in his favor.

The boy shows interest in comedy. He's always enjoyed funny things, but his enthusiasm is becoming more defined. So earlier this week, he and I began what I suppose you could call Comedy School. At the moment, I'm showing him various forms of slapstick, noting, for example, the differences between Chaplin and the Three Stooges

"Chaplin's like a dancer," he said after watching some clips from "The Kid," "City Lights," and a few early Keystone shorts. "But the Three Stooges just hit each other. Hard!"

"Well," I replied, "they do hit each other, but that's carefully planned out in advance. But yes, Chaplin moves like he's in a comedy ballet. The Stooges are more like crash test dummies."

Soon we'll get to Keaton, Lloyd, Tati, Jerry Lewis, Lucille Ball, among many others. After that, joke and story tellers (early Bill Cosby will be heavy here); then absurdity; then farce; and hopefully by that time the kid will be well-versed in the tradition and forewarned about trying to make it a living.

Given all this comic study, you'd think that today's belated video fest would be especially laff oriented. But as you've probably guessed, I'm not in a comedy mood. Far from it. So instead, here are a few items that better reflect my present mindset.

Someone who shares my love of "thirtysomething" is posting entire shows at YouTube. So far, there's only three, but one is a personal favorite from the third season, "Legacy". If you're not familiar with the show's characters and interwoven plotlines, there's really no point in me trying to explain it all here. Still, this episode displays all that is good about "thirtysomething", which for me is Joseph Dougherty, who wrote "Legacy." Dougherty's scripts were among the most political, in this case a Mother Jones-type magazine being bought and gutted by an outside corporate group. Dougherty also wrote the Miles Drentell episodes, the cut-throat Zen capitalist ad executive played brilliantly by David Clennon, whose politics would appall Miles. As I've said elsewhere, I got to know Dave in his "thirtysomething" period, and once coaxed him to co-host the WBAI media show I was doing at the time (my usual co-host, Laura Flanders, was away on assignment that week). Years later, when I was in the bowels of "Mr. Mike," the majority of which I wrote between 11PM and 6 AM, I'd take a 2 AM break to watch "thirtysomething" re-runs on Lifetime. During this stage of the book, I talked to Dave quite a bit; and since his old show was fresh in my mind, I got him to reveal all sorts of backstage gossip, as well as engaging him on the meaning of Miles, who was loosely based on Mike Ovitz. I'm not normally star-struck, but I must confess that I found it pretty cool to watch Dave's performances and then later dissect them with Dave himself, a generous, funny guy.

Anyway, here's the episode, which cannot be embedded, only linked. So go, watch, do -- Parts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.

And as I've also mentioned before, Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia" is one of my favorite American films. I love the way the movie begins, sharp performances and crisp, Scorsese-like editing. But as the varied narratives unfurl and intersect, and we get to know the characters that are thrown at us early on, "Magnolia" slows down and allows us to absorb the pain, regret, anger and anxiety that these main characters feel. Below is the turning point of the film, when the characters ponder their next, decisive moves, expressed by singing along with Aimee Mann's beautiful "Wise Up." Some critics at the time were either confused or put off by PTA's singing/narrative device, and it certainly risked being laughed at. Yet for me it works and sets the tone for the remainder of "Magnolia," a film that has made me cry more than I care to admit.

Here's another Aimee Mann "Magnolia" song, "Save Me," which served as the film's closing number. This is the music video, directed by PTA, featuring the film's cast being haunted by Mann.

Next week -- back to the comedy. I hope.