Friday Free for all #39: Romance, second chance, five bucks

Friday Free for All
The next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question. Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

What’s romanticized in modern culture but really shouldn’t be?

Once upon a time in our culture, it used to be war, something that didn’t begin to change until films that came out after Vietnam. Even films like Catch-22 and M*A*S*H, still romanticized the subject.

Both came out in the same year, 1970, while the Vietnam war still raged on, with the former being a satire of WW II and the latter being a comedy set in the Korean War. But despite the satirical and comedic tone, they romanticized war by making it appear to be all fun and games — well for some of the characters.

Catch-22’s Milo Minderbinder (Jon Voight) is an incredible double-dealer who is constantly making trades. Unfortunately, they involve things like swapping silk parachutes for eggs — keeping in mind that our cast are stationed in Italy as part of the Army Air Corps, precursor to the air force, meaning that parachutes were pretty damn important.

In his ultimate deal, he basically invites the enemy and gives them directions to bomb the shit out of their airfield. And yet, the way the character is played, he rationalizes all of his actions as ultimately being for the benefit of the unit.

Meanwhile, the lead doctors in M*A*S*H — who went on to become even more well-known via the long-running TV series — seem to treat their Mobile Army Surgical Hospital like some sort of frat house cum country club, pulling hijinks left and right.

Ironically, the TV series picked up this tone over its first few seasons, but by the end the comedy had matured and the romanticizing of war had been knocked clean out of it, largely due to the influence of Alan Alda.

One year later would see the release of Johnny Got His Gun, which decidedly did not romanticize war as it told the story of a WW I veteran who winds up in a hospital minus all of his limbs and his face. About all he can do is hear, remember, and imagine.

Incidentally, it has a connection to movie M*A*S*H. Donald Sutherland played Capt. Benjamin Franklin Pierce in that movie, and played Jesus in Johnny Got His Gun.

After this, the trend really took off in films like The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now. These were both about Vietnam, and came out back-to-back in 1978 and 1979. Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket was another movie that did not romanticize war, and I did fail to mention that Kubrick’s early Paths of Glory (1957) did not, either, although it was one of the few exceptions.

Once “war is bad” became ingrained in pop culture — with frequent exceptions being made for WW II — came the rise of romanticizing organized crime. It’s no coincidence that the movie The Godfather came out on the heels of Catch-22 and M*A*S*H. And yes, it romanticizes the hell out of being in the Mafia.

Martin Scorsese made a career out of romanticizing mob life, which is a major reason I’m not a fan of most of his films at all. However, the granddaddy of bad examples of making the mobster life seem glamorous is Brian De Palma’s 1983 Scarface.

To this day, there are morons who still adore that film and idolize Al Pacino’s Tony Montana, although I’m not really sure that De Palma wasn’t trying to get the audience to root for him anyway, since the main message seems to be, “Become a ruthless criminal and you can live large.”

Just disregard that getting blown away while coked out of your mind part, but that only happened because Tony made one big mistake, anyway. Ironically, that mistake was one of Tony’s few ethical moments, as he prevents the assassination of a journalist by car-bomb when he realizes that the man has his wife and kids with him.

The drug kingpin brought down by said journalist was not at all happy. So, revised moral of that pile of celluloid shit: “Become a ruthless criminal and you can live large. Just never make the mistake of listening to your conscience.”

I also find it really weird that three Italian-Americans like Scorsese, De Palma, and Francis Ford Coppola, bought in, in varying degrees, to perpetuating stereotypes about Italian-Americans and Italians and Sicilians.

And then it spread to TV with The Sopranos. Though you might not guess it from his name, creator David Chase is also… Italian-American.

Shit. Despite my name, maybe I should just write TV shows about a bunch of Irish people who are always drunk, live off of welfare, will start a fight at the drop of a hat, and whose women keep dropping babies from puberty to menopause.

Oh, wait. I think Scorsese already did that one, too.

If you could live your life again knowing what you do now, what would you change?

Oh, hell yeah, the key being “knowing what you do now.” There would be changes big and small. Probably the most profound one to my childhood would be having no fear of being embarrassed or judged, which I don’t now, but which held me back a lot then.

I think I would have also steered myself more toward a career as a performer in either acting or improv from an early age and, again, given the “KWYDN” advantage, I’d start out way ahead of the game.

Also given that, I could focus on acting lessons starting at 7 instead of music lessons, because I’d already know music theory and how to play keys.

The other big important change would be college and early-career trajectory. Instead of where I went to study film, I would have picked either a University of California (UC) school not within two hundred miles of home, or gone to a school out-of-state, maybe even attending the college in Pennsylvania where my uncle was an English professor for so many years.

Possible alternate majors: Marketing or Business Administration, minor in PoliSci or History. Why? So that, until the acting career takes off, I could focus on being a venal a-hole, save up tons of money, and then “retire” from the working world before 30 to focus on the creative life.

So… parallel to that, I would also get my Realtor’s license ASAP, preferably in California, although any state that I knew would show ridiculous future growth would do. Then I’d get out there and sell, sell, sell, and rake in those sweet commissions.

Of course, if I did manage to hit it big on the acting front, real estate would then become my sideline or my fallback. Remember: get famous too young, you probably won’t be A-List for long — Haley Joel Osment, anybody? But start late, and the sky is the limit. I’m looking at you, Harrison Ford.

Okay, that’s the career side of it. But on the personal side, I would be a lot better at reading clues and picking up signals, which is the nice way of saying that I would have gotten laid a hell of a lot more. Of course, by not going to the same college, I’d never meet all of the people I later realized would have been sure things, but I would be much more perceptive and bolder to make up for it.

The one really big thing that I’d change, though, would be to sit my mom down for a talk the day before my 13th birthday. See, on my birthday, while our next-door neighbor was visiting with her, my mom started to hyperventilate and couldn’t breathe.

The neighbor, Annie, rushed her to the ER, and thus began a long medical misadventure that eventually led to her very premature death when I was way too young.

And I think I know exactly what she had experienced because it’s happened to me a few times, when it feels like you can’t breathe. It’s like a reverse hiccup that will not let you inhale. The first time it happened to me, though, long after she had died (and it woke me up), I somehow instinctively stumbled on the solution to it.

The natural inclination is to try really hard to inhale, but that’s a mistake. Instead, I held my breath — and it stopped almost instantly. The same trick has worked the less-than-handful of times it’s happened to me since.

So that would be the conversation I’d have with Mom. “This is going to happen tomorrow, maybe, but don’t freak out. If or when it does, just hold your breath and you’ll be fine.”

The alternate result is that her doctors basically threw every diagnostic test and medication at her — and, being men of the late 20th century every one of them — didn’t take it all seriously when she insisted that her symptoms (which probably were not related to the original thing at all but which were most likely eczema or something similar) got worse around that time of the month.

“Oh, it’s all in your head,” they’d tell her, and I seriously wanted to just smack them all.

Ultimately, I’m convinced that they medicated her to death after she freaked out over something that she could have controlled herself.

Disclaimer: Do not in any way interpret this as me dismissing modern medicine, because I’m not. What we have now is amazing and wonderful, even if the delivery system in the U.S. has been utterly fucked by rampant capitalism.

My mother just happened to have a bunch of bad, sexist doctors who were too proud to say, “We don’t know,” pulled a diagnosis out of their asses, and then destroyed her immune, respiratory, and circulatory systems by pumping every drug they could think of into her.

So, yeah… that’d be one of the bigger changes.

What’s the best $5 you’ve ever spent?

My friend Rick Steadman told me about this thing, ComedySportz, and how they had classes and the Monday night Rec League. As I’ve written here many times before, I’d always been a fan of improv but was afraid to do it. But here was a chance to check it out, so I came down to one of the Monday shows.

At the time, they were charging $5 to get in, and within two minutes of the thing starting, I thought, “OMG, I would love to do this.”

That led to me signing up for classes, going through the program, and winding up on Rec League, where I performed for just over two years before the world shut down.

But the experience changed me and my life, and taking that back to the alternate reality in the previous question would have been the biggest help to me of all, because improv helped me to lose my fear and my inhibitions, to learn to listen to people, as well as how to react to them.

And I can only imagine where I’d be now if I’d managed to hook up with ComedySportz during their early days in L.A.

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