Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

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Acting, Race, Sexuality and What's Offensive

One can argue about the distinctions between the two terms, but acting is – at its most basic level – pretending.  A good actor can play virtually anyone or anything, and in doing so impart some truth to an audience.  It’s art, to be sure, but it’s artistic pretending.  You would think that pretending would have no bounds, that its only limits would be the human imagination, but that isn’t the case, not because of the people’s limitations but because of mankind’s ignoble history that’s led to certain types of pretending to become taboo.  The most obvious example is white people painting their faces black, but there are others, and the guidelines aren’t as clear-cut as you would think.  Read this article from the USA Today in full and tell me that you now have a clear understanding of what’s allowed and what’s not allowed.  To quote the movie Fletch

Fletch: “Well, there we’re in kind of a gray area.” 
Frank Walker: “How gray?” 
Fletch: “Charcoal.”

When I was growing up, Saturday Night Live allowed for many comedic skits that might not fly today.  I say “might not” because it’s not entirely obvious what’s allowed and what might stir controversy.  (If you disagree, keep reading).  In December of 1984, SNL aired a mock-documentary of Eddie Murphy playing a white man, to hilarious effect.  (If you’ve never seen it, do a quick Google search).  That same year, Billy Crystal wore dark makeup to portray one of his idols, Sammy Davis, Jr.  This was all deemed well and good in 1984 (at least through the lens of the American mainstream), but when Crystal reprised his impersonation at the 2012 Oscars, he got a lot of flak, with one critic making the blanket statement, “Blackface is not okay.  Ever.”    

Setting aside for now that there is in fact a distinction between “blackface” as historically understood and Billy Crystal putting on makeup to impersonate Sammy Davis, Jr., it’s important to note that Davis’s daughter Tracey defended Crystal, saying, “I am 100 percent certain that my father is smiling.  Billy previously played my father when he was alive, and my father gave Billy his full blessing.”  She also took issue with categorizing Crystals portrayal as “blackface.”

Now, you might say that Crystal’s Oscar performance is an exception to the rule due to it being a reprisal of a skit from years ago, but that going forward we should have no more of this.  No white person should ever wear black makeup to portray another person. 

What about the reverse?  Can someone wear white makeup to portray a character?

Let’s go back to Eddie Murphy who once again showed his acting and imitation prowess in 1988’s Coming to America, when he wore white makeup and depicted a stereotypical Jewish man telling a joke at a barbershop.  I just watched a clip of it and laughed out loud.  I don’t know if the Jewish community raised a ruckus back in 1988 for this skit – I do know my Jewish wife found the scene hilarious at the time – but given that Jewish actors once made a living performing actual blackface back in the day, staying silent on the matter was probably best.

But there is of course a distinction to be made here.  Whites have historically been privileged in this country and blacks have historically been oppressed.  Furthermore, blackface has such a sordid history that we could agree that wearing dark makeup, even as an attempt to depict a person whom you respect, should be relegated to a thing of the past.  (Which means that Tropic Thunder couldn’t be made today, which is regrettable.)

As Kara Weisenstein summarized in this Vice article: “Darkening your skin is never okay (because of aforementioned old-timey racists), but dressing up as a character of another race is usually fine, as long as the character’s race isn’t part of the costume.”

Fair enough, as long as it goes both ways.  I mean, I love Eddie Murphy’s portrayal in Coming to America, but Jews haven’t exactly been exempted from oppression (and they’re also a minority, making up less than 2% of the U.S. population), so let’s just agree – going forward, no person of one race should wear makeup to portray a person of another race.  Is this something that we can agree on in 2019?  Can we?

But then we get to a more recent controversy involving Scarlett Johansson, who was lambasted for agreeing to play a transgender person in the proposed film, Rub & Tug, before finally bowing out of the project.  As summarized in this article from The Guardian, Johansson’s initial response to the hubbub was correct on its face but not taken well by the trans community: “Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment.”  All three of these actors played trans roles that were largely lauded, but the argument goes that the time has come for a change, that since trans actors typically can’t play roles that aren’t trans, it makes sense that at the very least trans roles should go to trans actors.  Yes, there was a time when it was okay (apparently, that time was in 2014, when the show Transparent debuted), but no longer.  Going forward, trans roles should only be played by trans actors. 

Can we agree on that?  Okay.  Again I say, fair enough.  But then…

Why isn’t there backlash against Eric McCormack, a straight man, reprising his role as a gay character on NBC’s Will & Grace?  Just as with Billy Crystal in 2012, the word “reprisal” once again seems to be a key word here.  Even McCormack admits that he’s still allowed to play the role of Will Truman primarily because the show debuted in the 1990s.  Were it to have debuted in 2018, the role would have gone to a gay actor.  But then McCormick adds, “But does that mean that now when you walk into a casting room you have to state whether you are straight or gay? I don’t know.”

Now that’s an interesting point.  I can picture a casting director having a questionnaire for actors as they enter the audition room in order to fend off potential controversies, which of course would set off a whole new controversy! 

But if it’s all a matter of fairness, then let’s look no further than a hugely successful show on Amazon, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.  Most of the characters in the show are Jewish, but much of the cast, including leads Rachel Brosnahan and Tony Shalhoub, aren’t.  Is this okay?  If yes, why?  Because the actors have the same color skin as the characters they’re playing?  Is this the only factor to consider?

I don’t know, but ultimately I think the answer has to be that it’s okay for non-Jewish actors to play Jews, just as it should be okay for Catholic Italians to play English Protestants or American Jews to play Mormons.  Acting is pretending, and as McCormack implied, where do we draw the line and how do we determine who’s on what side of the line?  Will we have to have actors submit ancestry charts prior to auditioning for a role?  “I’m sorry, would-be actor, but you’re trying out for the role of an Italian-American from Texas with a background in the oil industry, but you’re an Irish-American from Arkansas whose family has a background in agriculture.  There’s no way you can play this part.” 

Crazy, right?  Personally, I love that Tony Shalhoub plays a Jew in Mrs. Maisel, that Emma Stone plays a Brit in The Favorite, and that Kate Winslet and Cate Blanchett play damn-convincing Americans.  It’s okay. 

Fine.  We seem to be getting somewhere, but just when I think I can wrap my arms around it all, there are examples that throw everything off kilter.  When actress Juliette Binoche played a Chilean in The 33 no one seemed to raise an eyebrow.  But why?  Binoche is white, and there surely must be talented Chilean actresses.  Binoche was allowed to play a Chilean, but she clearly wouldn’t be allowed to play a Chinese woman or a Nigerian woman.  Is it only about race or skin color?  Or is there more to it?

There is!  Or at least to some folks, there is.  And this brings us to a hugely successful film with an Asian cast.  The lead actor in Crazy Rich Asians, Henry Golding, is only – these are not my words – “half-Asian,” so this led to a controversy about the film’s casting, with some saying that the film should have cast “full-Asians.”  This sounds so wrong to me that it brings to mind Voldemort and his posse attacking Mudbloods.  As writer Deanna Pal – who has an Italian parent and an Asian parent – beautifully states in her article defending the casting decisions of the film, “Since when does being more than one thing cancel the other out…to impose whitewashing narratives onto biracial people feels like erasure of half of who I am.”

To me, as long as an actor’s portrayal of another person is coming from a place of love and respect – and this can include poking fun of that person, as Eddie Murphy did in Coming to America or Billy Crystal did on SNL – then I personally don’t give a shit.  Yes, I know, being a fifty year-old upper middle-class white man has given me the privilege of being able to say, “I don’t give a shit.”  I get it.  But I personally love the recent trend to throw historical accuracy out the window when casting a work of art, allowing anyone to play anybody.  The recent movie Mary Queen of Scots has a multiracial cast despite it not being historically accurate, and the musical Hamilton did the same to great effectBut if this is allowed, so too should it be allowed for a straight man to play a gay man, a half-Malaysian woman to play a Chinese woman, or a gay, half-Italian, half-Arab man to play a straight, half-Jewish, half-Brazilian man. 

As Kara Weisenstein concludes in her article, “I want to live in a world where little white boys can be President Obama, and Muslim girls can be Wonder Woman, and queer teens can be Elvis or Ariana Grande, and Heidi Klum can be a goddamn ogre if she wants to be.”

Honestly, let’s relax a little bit here. 

I’ll end with a funny YouTube comment I read about the aforementioned SNL skit, whereby Billy Crystal plays Sammy Davis, Jr., and Joe Piscopo plays President Reagan:

“This is so offensive, I can't even believe it's real - how dare they let an Italian from Jersey play Ronald Reagan!”

Signing off, hoping I offended no one with this essay, but knowing full-well that I did.

Looking Up (Literally)

Anyone who has children or owns a dog knows the monotony that can come with walking the same familiar streets for years on end.  When my kids attended grade school there were times when I walked the same four blocks back and forth four times a day.  The same houses.  The same trees.  The same cars.  Sure, sometimes these walks led to a little mind-wandering that was good for the soul, but often I viewed the strolls merely as chores to do, not unlike tackling another load of laundry.  If you live in the mountains you may be spared this plight, but residing in the Chicago suburbs doesn’t lend itself to particularly interesting landscapes – people don’t call Illinoisans flatlanders for nothing. 

But there’s an old adage I once read somewhere that went something like this: if you want to discover something new, walk down a familiar path.  A year ago I took this tidbit to heart and decided to change my mindset by doing something very simple: looking up.  I began to notice the trees of the neighborhood, and I recognized that with a few exceptions I couldn’t name them beyond the most rudimentary level, like asking a three-year-old what those large green things are in the front yard.  “Those are trees.”  Aside from obvious maples and oaks, there’s little I could tell you. 

I purchased a copy of Peterson Field Guides Eastern Trees, watched a few videos on YouTube, and began to challenge myself by learning how to identify the multitude of trees lining the parkways and front yards of Elmhurst, Illinois, attempting to add a few varieties every week or two.  I’m not very good at it – it’s incredible how many species of trees there are and how darn similar they can be to each other – but little by little I’m expanding my knowledge base, and my walks have been enriched greatly as a result.  Now when I walk familiar streets, my mind is focused on something other than whether my dog has peed or pooed.

Trees are varied enough and intricate enough that I could probably spend the next decade on this endeavor alone, but there are other ways to open up your world when taking walks if trees aren’t your thing.  A friend of mine who walks far more than I do has a background in architecture, and for her the suburban streets are the source of endless variations of home styles.  When engaged in conversation with her, she’ll sometimes say something like, “You know that red tudor on the corner of Grace Street?”

No.  No I don’t.

It reminds me of something my buddy Don said to me back in grad school when he purchased flowers for his girlfriend.  I asked him what kind, and he answered, “Purple ones.”

The point is that the world around you is much bigger and interesting than you might realize, and all it takes is a little initiative to tap into your surroundings in new, profound ways.  If trees ever lose their luster, you could start identifying house styles, or makes and models of cars, or types of flowers or birds or the names of colors.  I’m terrible at describing the color of objects, and I’d love to add shades like mauve, chartreuse, azure and fuchsia to my immediate lexicon.  There’s no shortage of ways to mentally challenge yourself as you do your daily strolls.

But for my next challenge, I’m focused on getting our dog to pee on command so that four walks a day aren’t a necessity come wintertime. Here’s hoping.

Pooch Panic

Were you to have recorded my worst moments two weeks ago, you’d surely need no additional evidence to determine that I suffer from some form of anxiety disorder, manifesting itself in extreme panic attacks and severe fits of rage.  It was rough week, and while I plead guilty to the symptoms, if not the diagnosis (yet), it just goes to how hard it can be during times of stress to see the finish line and put things into perspective. 

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My family adopted a pooch two weeks ago – a four-year-old beagle recovering from hip surgery who suffers from her own anxiety issues and is prone to pee in the house – and within a short twenty-four hours of our adoption I was unable to see how this experiment would result in anything other than me packing up and leaving the family, since I know that my wife would never willingly spurn the devotion of a pooch, no matter how much pee she empties onto our carpets.  (And just last night – our couch!)

I panicked.  My wife and I argued.  She calmed me down.  And just when I thought, okay, maybe this will all work out, Piper, our sweet loving pooch who was clearly treated poorly for much of her life, would look at me, plop down on her back, and pee all over the floor, leading me to get amped up all over again until Alice tranquilized me with reason.  This was hard for her to do in person, but especially difficult to do over the phone, juggling normal work-day stresses along with her insane husband yelling while he mopped up pee for the fourth time that day.

And it wasn’t just the pee.  During that first week, Piper suffered from diarrhea (and anxiously deposited one bout onto our living room floor), wouldn’t eat dry food, wouldn’t pee outside, making it impossible to reinforce good behavior, and even if she had peed, she wouldn’t eat any of the treats we offered. (After a few days we resorted to giving her pieces of boiled chicken).  Add to this that she was still getting over hip surgery, so she was unable to walk any distance and we had to initially carry her up and down stairs.  It was all too much.

And then Monday night happened.

I had travelled to Louisville for a day to visit my daughter and get away for a while, and upon returning home came back to the same poor pooch, who immediately peed upon leaving her crate after my son had accidentally slept in too long.  I called Alice yet again on the phone and told her how this wasn’t going to work out.  (I’d like to say that were my exact words.  Not quite.)

And then that night Piper ate dry food.  Gobbled it, devoured it.  And then while on a walk she peed – on the GRASS – and when I offered her a basic store-bought treat to reward her, she ate it.  Gobbled it, devoured it.  Upon returning home she sprinted up the stairs, played with a sock that we’d tied into a knot several days earlier, and acted, well…like a dog. 

Piper has had a few setbacks since then – she peed on the carpet after refusing to climb down the stairs for some reason, and last night she peed on the couch, but the majority of her issues fixed themselves so quickly that now all we’re left with is a really good pooch who has a few issues on occasion.  I wish I could same for her owners!  Piper still is a little jumpy, and we may have some difficulty when it comes to leaving her to go on vacation, but I feel like these are challenges we can face.  Two weeks ago, I couldn’t see any light on the horizon, and all it took was one day before I started to panic.  Woe to my family if I ever have to face real stress for actual weeks or months.

I feel lucky and grateful.  Lucky that my wife forced me to hang in there just a little bit longer, and grateful that Piper is currently sitting by my side on our backroom couch.  And I hope she knows that she’ll never face another difficult day for as long as she lives.  Those days are over.  For your remaining years, dear Piper, all that’s expected of you now is to rest, eat, play, cuddle and act happy when we walk in the door.

And to pee outside.  That’s it.

My Experience with Blue Apron

While recognizing that my somewhat cushy existence as an at-home dad/musician/writer doesn’t give me much leeway for complaining, after being the primary meal planner and preparer of the house for the past twenty years, I decided that I needed a break.  It wasn’t so much the shopping and cooking that bothered me as it was the planning.  Deciding what to eat in order to satisfy everyone’s tastes and restrictions was getting to be a mental chore, so for my 50th birthday I requested a gift certificate to Blue Apron, a meal delivery service that supplies its customers with all the ingredients needed to cook recipes you choose on-line.  Easy peasy, and it seemed like a fine antidote to the meal planning virus I’d contracted. 

While I’ve enjoyed aspects of the service, after eight weeks of using Blue Apron, I’ve decided that the pros don’t outweigh the cons, and this morning I cancelled my service.  Let me preface this by saying that if both my wife and I were working full-time, I might not be so quick to abort the mission.  The fact that I have a lot of flexibility to shop and prepare meals changes the ledger considerably.

So why did I cancel?  There were three things that made me feel uneasy about the service, as good as it might be. 

First, it’s not cheap.  I of course knew that going in, but seeing the bill show up on the credit card each week started to wear on me, especially knowing full-well that I could easily drive to a grocery store to pick up whatever food I needed at a fraction of the cost.  I was paying $10 per person per meal, so $80 a week.  This is not unbelievably expensive, and I doubt a company could do it for much less, but nevertheless, price was one nagging concern.

Second, I found my shopping to be much less frequent, which on the surface is a good thing, but my trips became so infrequent and my habits so poor that our food inventory suffered as a result.  It was so easy to say “I’ve got dinner all set for tonight – we can hang in there one more day before I do another shopping run” that we’d be left to face a breakfast of toast and a lunch of peanut butter sandwiches (not that there's anything wrong with that).  We also kept running out of basic items like milk, yogurt and bananas.  In short, I grew terribly lazy and used Blue Apron as an excuse to avoid shopping at all costs.

But the biggest reason for cancelling the service is the staggering amount of waste created each week by the Blue Apron deliveries.  As a guy who started recycling two decades before curbside pickup was a thing, unnecessary waste is an important point for me.  Ellen Cushing wrote a nice summary of the waste incurred with a service like Blue Apron (competitors have similar issues) and the somewhat disingenuous claim that most of the materials can be recycled.  Blue Apron used to have a free recycling program that allowed customers to send all the contents back to the company, but this has been cancelled, no doubt due to the cost.

If Blue Apron or a service like it could be localized so that – like the Chicago-based Oberweis dairy deliver service – we could have a cooler with reusable ice packs, I would be on-board.  Eliminate the box and the ice packs, include a synthetic insulator to separate cold items from the rest, and this could be a service that yields nothing more than a few small plastic bags.  

There are also grocery delivery businesses like Instacart and Peapod that are good fits for some people, and I may one day yield to that temptation, but for now I’m going to go back to shopping more regularly and forcing my family to share the burden by choosing a few meals each week that they want me to shop and cook for.  At least that’s the plan.  How long before it goes awry?

A Poor Batch of Oscar Nominees

Was it just a year ago that we were discussing the merits of Lion, Hell or High Water, Arrival, Manchester by the Sea, La La Land and Fences?  I crammed in a boat-load of movies between November and February last winter and was genuinely impressed with the lot.  Prior years weren’t too shabby either, with 2015 bringing us Spotlight, Bridge of Spies and The Big Short, and the preceding year offering Birdman, Grand Budapest Hotel and Boyhood.  In short, well-done movies – some of them groundbreaking – with interesting approaches, compelling characters, and important topics.

Not so this year.  I’ve seen eight out of the nine nominees for Best Picture this Oscar season, and only one of them rises to the level that one should expect from Academy Awards nominees.

Recognizing that I don’t see more than a few dozen films a year, here are my favorites for 2017:

Get Out

Wind River

All the Money in the World

I, Tonya

Sadly, only one made it in: the incomparable Get Out, a smart, creepy, important, entertaining and well-executed movie.  It would be a contender for the top prize any given year, but when compared to the other seven entries that I’ve seen, it’s the only one that actually should win.  Which means it probably won’t.

Wind River never stood a chance since it was released by the Weinstein Company in the midst of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuse scandal, and Ridley Scott’s reshooting of Kevin Spacey’s scenes in All the Money in the World apparently wasn’t enough to sway voters (perhaps the salary controversy surrounding Mark Wahlberg and Michelle Williams was a factor?)  Why I, Tonya wasn’t included as a nominee is perplexing, as it was a consistently entertaining story with sharp, snappy dialogue and a lead character who achieved the difficult feat of being both unlikable and sympathetic.

Unfortunately, when compared to those four films, most of this year’s nominees fall far short, at best likable morsels and at worst laborious and flawed.

The Darkest Hour was a great performance surrounded by a poor script with unnecessary scenes and characters and a plot that lacked a compelling arc.  I liken it to The King’s Speech, except there isn’t one monumental speech but three, deflating whatever emotion the final speech was supposed to elicit. 

Better was the film Dunkirk, though this too was flawed with a dearth of urgency despite the obvious importance of the subject matter.  I kept waiting to see an aerial shot of hundreds of boats approaching the shores of France, but was instead led to believe that a dozen vessels rescued over a quarter of a million soldiers.  A missed opportunity.

Similarly, Spielberg’s The Post lacked the suspense and exigency that the real-life drama encompassed.  Coined a political thriller, it contained the politics but not the thrill.  Worse, at no time during the film did I believe that it was taking place in the 1970s.  Instead, it looked like a movie made by present-day actors dressed in 1970s garb.  Why this is the case I can’t entirely say, except that the movie looked too clean, lacking the grit and sweat that other films – Argo comes to mind – have managed to capture.  When one considers how good a newspaper drama can be – Spotlight, All the President’s Men ­– The Post is a disappointment.

My wife, son and I all saw The Shape of Water on Christmas morning, and to a man, we thought it was among the stupidest films we’d ever seen.  I’ve talked to others who’ve really enjoyed it, and it certainly has received numerous critical accolades, so perhaps there’s something seriously flawed not with the movie but with the Heinz family!  Or, perhaps we simply couldn’t accept what was – in essence – a schlocky 1950s monster movie in Oscar-buzz clothing.

Call Me By Your Name benefitted from an excellent ending (I wish Michael Stuhlbarg had been nominated), but suffered from a first half that was coy and plodding. (By the way, Stuhlbarg acted in not one, not two, but three Best Picture nominees this year.  Not bad!)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri began as such an irreverent and funny film with completely unbelievable characters that it was impossible for me to switch gears when the film expected me to take later scenes seriously.  In short, it was disjointed, though again, I’ve talked to some people who really liked it.

And then there’s Lady Bird, an enjoyable coming-of-age story with good performances, but it covers way too much territory and has some oddly extraneous scenes (Father Leviatch’s illness, for example).  I can accept this as an Ocscar nominee as long as it isn’t seriously considered.

Does Paul Thomas Anderon’s Phantom Thread rise to the level of legitimate Oscar contender?  I don’t know.  It’s the one nominated film that I haven’t seen.  I loved Anderson’s Magnolia and really disliked There Will Be Blood and The Master, so it could go either way.

But in the meantime, I will be pulling hard for Jordan Peele and Get Out.  Throw an Oscar in for actor Daniel Kaluuya and I’ll be a happy man (though one could hardly be upset to see Oldman take the prize).

Here’s hoping 2018 births a better batch of films.

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved