Wednesday, August 21, 2013

It's All Over Now, Baby Blue: Graduating from New York University

Note: I wrote this piece this past May after graduating from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. I believe the piece more or less deals with a lot of my fears immediately after graduation, and, to a certain extent, the piece still reflects a lot of my feelings even months after graduation.

There’s a deep, profound sadness during this time of transition. It’s about that time when regrets start bubbling up in my mind, although, for me, they never seem to really leave, and my days are spent recounting and reliving the social errors and faux-pas I made over the past four years.

If I’m concerned or preoccupied with anything, both in my everyday life and in my creative work – it’s behavior. Specifically, my own, over which I am significantly concerned. But I suppose in the days surrounding graduation, my normal state of anxiety has risen to a full-out existential crisis.

What behavior do other people remember? I think that my latest film, You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory, deals with this question a little bit. Is it possible to act like a buffoon in front of a large group of people, but still manage to salvage your reputation and retain some pride for the next day? Is everyone thinking mostly about their own moral failings, their own insecurities and disappointments? I know that I’m guilty of overanalyzing my own behavior, but I also know that I’m able to sometimes behave on autopilot, unaware of what my words might mean or suggest to someone else.

If only we were given a transcript of everything we said during a given day – every word, every action – then I would have a way of analyzing my behavior closely to see how I did (and I wouldn’t struggle to recall every significant thing I said). Was my behavior as awkward as I remember? Did I alienate anyone along the way? After reviewing it, I would probably hand the transcript over to someone else – a witness – to receive some sort of validation that I’m not doing as terribly as I think I am.

There are opportunities for opening up, but I squander them. I imagine most students who graduated last week are experiencing a kind of existential crisis to one degree or another. But my concern isn’t having an existential crisis – my concern is that I’ll continue to mask that crisis behind sarcasm and a snarky sense of humor that shoots down any real kind of conversation with another person. I build walls.

I also struggle immensely without structure. I began feeling comfortable and respected in high school when I became a part of our school’s wonderful theatre department, but that was a long time ago. I think I’ve been able to survive in college through the structure of the film school and keeping busy with making movies.

What structure remains now? There will be the weekly Wednesday evening meetings with my Advanced Production class, where we screen rough cuts of our advanced films and, ideally, screen feature-length films afterwards. The class is made up of people who I love dearly, and perhaps it’s because I love them all so dearly that I fear my excitement in seeing them each week will result in the kind of behavior I long to end. I’ll talk too much, I’ll get started on a rant about films, or perhaps a political issue about which I know far too little, and when the evening is over, I’ll take a look at myself and promise to do better the next week. But this is one of the only surviving structures in which there is the luxury of having a next week. And it won’t last for long.

But When We Get to the End, He Wants to Start All Over Again

That’s right, so many of the structures and institutions that give direction to my life are disappearing before my eyes. The Dean’s Scholars group, the classes, the internship, Tisch New Theatre – all have come to an end.

There are many friends (and people I wish I knew better) moving to Los Angeles soon, and maybe I’ll have the chance to see some of these wonderful people one last time before they leave. But there likely won’t be enough time for me to re-shape how they think of me, or for me to deepen my friendship with them in a significant way. Of course, I always tell myself I need more time – it doesn’t matter how long I have with someone. If I spend ten hours with another person, for instance, I’ll very likely squander 9 ½ of those hours by telling nonsense jokes, ranting about movies and acting bizarrely in an effort to gain some sort of attention or respect. And then, in the last half-hour, I’ll suddenly scramble to make some kind of real, true emotional connection with the person and achieve what I failed to do in the previous hours. That’s my nature.

Although some of us will remain at Tisch and continue editing our senior films in the months to come, the vast majority of people I know will move on, and what was once a fresh class of students and artists will drift away. I think I’ll miss it the most precisely because, just as I was learning how to become a part of it, it ended.

But for the past four years, every night was a chance to look back at the day behind me, review the possible mistakes I made and try to reinvent myself for the next day. I’m not sure there were very many days where I took that opportunity.

Now, I have that slightly lonely feeling you get after a shoot is over, except it feels like one giant film shoot has come to an end. Most shoots themselves feel like a rush of quick decisions, small arguments with other people – an entire laundry-list of sometimes questionable behavior. When they’re over, everything slows down. Suddenly there’s time to think through everything carefully, but it’s too late to change anyone’s opinion of you because everyone has moved on, and that rush that comes with having so much to do has vanished. There’s the need to lay low, make amends and keep quiet for a while, and you’re not totally sure if there will always be a next shoot, and you know you may not see many of these wonderful people ever again after spending so much time with them.

That’s what graduation feels like.

After the Gold Rush

It’s late at night when I get the most anxious – when I realize that all of the plans and dreams I had for a given day did not come to fruition, that I accomplished very little and that, frankly, I regressed in many ways. And then I fight against the night to fix what I can before I run out of steam and energy. When I wake up in the morning, the world seems so full of opportunity and promise again. Energized by the potential of the day, I get a little giddy, and I goof around, leaving the work for just a little bit later, and I goof around some more – until it’s nighttime, and I realize that I let all of that opportunity and promise slip away. But that’s okay, because the next morning –

When you get to the end, you know there are so many people who you could have gotten to know better. Oh, how I wish I had been more candid, more genuine and free of cynicism.

It’s true that there are wonderful things that await me. I get to live with two of my dearest friends this summer. I will continue working on my advanced film, a project I’m very proud of, and I will be faced with a few more opportunities, perhaps, to better my behavior in front of people I respect and admire.

But, for me, there’s always going to be a tension every day between the need to behave, to be rational, to make a good impression on others – and then the impulse to somehow transcend the day, to act a little bit crazier and take a few risks – but in doing so, maybe you get the chance to earn the love and respect for which you’ve been searching. And then there’s the fall – where the behavior comes crashing down and those risks turn into regrets, and you wonder why you didn’t play it safe and just behave like a normal human being.

Our last advanced production class with Yemane Demissie profoundly moved me. He screened Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt for the class, and although the film is one of my favorite movies, I didn’t initially understand why Yemane selected the film to end our class. He told us that he thought showing a transition film about college graduation might be a little obvious, so he wanted to show a film about a different moment of transition in a person’s life. The movie, as it always does, made me tear up a little bit at the end. But, after it ended, Yemane sat in front of the class and connected About Schmidt to my future in a way that I had never considered.

Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) plants a seed at the beginning of the film by sending a monthly donation to a six-year old child named Ndugu, who lives in a developing country, through a program called Childreach. It’s exactly the kind of thing an American man in his late sixties might do to give back, or to feel he’s doing some good in the world. Schmidt expects nothing by sending the check, though – it’s a genuine act that results in him writing letters to Ndugu throughout the film, speaking his mind and sharing his insecurities with a young boy who probably doesn’t understand what he’s talking about.

Over the course of the film, it becomes clear that Schmidt has planted nothing with his family – after his wife dies, he’s left to fend alone against his daughter and her fiancĂ©. By the end of the film, Schmidt is alone. He has nobody left, and he has failed. His daughter marries the imbecile he so strongly urges her not to, and after the wedding, she’s gone, out of reach.

His wife is gone, too. He is mostly forgotten by his co-workers from his insurance office. “Relatively soon, I will die,” Schmidt writes to Ndugu. “Maybe in 20 years, maybe tomorrow, it doesn’t matter. Once I am dead and everyone who knew me dies too, it will be as though I never existed. What difference has my life made to anyone? None that I can think of. None at all.”

In the last scene, however, he opens a letter from a Sister who works in a small village in Tanzania and cares for young Ndugu. She tells Schmidt that Ndugu reads all of his letters and thinks of him every day. Enclosed with the letter is a painting by Ndugu, which shows two stick figures – one shorter than the other – holding hands. Schmidt breaks down crying. In the end of the film, Ndugu is his salvation. He expected nothing from it, and put his time and energy into relationships that ultimately failed him – but it was Ndugu that gave him his salvation.

Yemane asked us to remember, as we go forward in life, that if we plant something small and expect nothing from it, it could very well end up being our salvation. You never know what is going to end up saving you, and it may very well come from the place you least expect.

The graduation speech I needed came from Yemane Demissie. But it also made me wonder, where or what is my Ndugu? I worry and struggle through so many strained relationships, but which are the ones that will come through in the end?

How many times I have felt just like Schmidt – my last-ditch ambitions foiled, forced to return home, disappointed and defeated, only to have my spirits lifted by the smallest and most unexpected source. However deluded my happiness – or Schmidt’s – might be, it’s what keeps me going.

And so I move forward into a world of uncertainty and anxiety. My expectations are unrealistically high, and hopefully I won’t be crushed with disappointment. I only wish I knew the identity of my Ndugu, so that I can keep my eyes open and my heart ready for whatever ends up being my salvation.

Monday, August 5, 2013

A Goodbye to the Tisch Dean's Scholars

I owe so many of my most memorable experiences during my final semester as a student at NYU to the Tisch Dean's Scholars program. I do not know how to begin thanking this group for the last four years - they have been such an important and meaningful part of my life. From our private lunch with Alec Baldwin to our box seats at the New York Mets games, this program gave me a home every Wednesday night for the past four years and truly made me feel like I was part of a group in which I belonged.

On Wednesday, February 13th, we started the new semester by celebrating Chinese New Year at Jing Fong restaurant in Chinatown. Only a few weeks later, on Wednesday, February 27th, we were invited to see Tisch alumnus Rajiv Joseph's excellent new play The North Pool with Dean Mary Schmidt Campbell at the Vineyard Theatre. Two years ago, our Scholars group saw Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo on Broadway, starring Robin Williams, which was also written by Mr. Joseph. After the wonderful performance of The North Pool, we were treated to an excellent talkback with Mr. Joseph and the play's director, Giovanna Sardelli.

On March 6th, the senior Dean's Scholars were invited by Dean Campbell to join her and Tisch faculty members at a cocktail reception spotlighting the Talent Identification Process at the Tisch School of the Arts. The event was held at the beautiful Fisher Hillman Studio at BAM, and high school arts administrators from all over New York were invited.

The Talent Identification Process is a process by which the Tisch School of the Arts seeks out high school students from all over the country who have excelled in the arts, but who may not have the financial means to attend Tisch.

 The senior Dean's Scholars were invited because, as Cohen Scholarship recipients, our class was the first group of students to receive these scholarships through the Talent Identification Process. In this sense, we are the founding class of the Tisch Dean's Scholars program. Dean Campbell invited us to join her during her speech at the cocktail reception, which was such an honor. My friend Nicole Cobb prepared a wonderful speech about many of the outstanding aspects of the Dean's Scholars program, not the least of which was making it possible for all of us to attend NYU in the first place.

Over Spring Break, the Dean's Scholars took our first-ever out-of-town trip to Washington D.C. On Saturday, March 16th, we took the train from Grand Central Station to Washington's Union Station, where we had lunch together as a group. Soon after, we checked into our hotel rooms at the Westin, and I shared a room with Terrence Crawford, a fellow film student and good friend. In the afternoon, the Scholars group toured the NYU Washington D.C. campus, and then we enjoyed dinner at a great Thai restaurant.

On Sunday, we went on a tour of the United States Holocaust Museum, which was followed by a fascinating lecture from the curator of the museum. From there, we travelled over to Georgetown, where we were let loose for a few hours to roam the area. Nicole and I explored a few wonderful, small bookstores in the Georgetown area (I made some great purchases - old, paperback versions of Scorsese on Scorsese by David Thomson and Major Barbara by George Bernard Shaw). The group joined back together at Serendipity, where we snacked on some delicious food. From there, we walked to the Kennedy Center, where we saw a performance of the popular mystery comedy Shear Madness, which was a lot of fun.

Before the performance, we ventured through the various floors of the Kennedy Center (I admit to spending perhaps too much time at the Lego-building station on the top floor, where Nicole and I created behemoth Lego figures that consistently toppled over and shattered to pieces). After the performance of Shear Madness, we explored the George Washington University area, which I hadn't visited in years, and then had a late dinner at a restaurant that I'm not completely certain was ready to serve all twenty of us.

On Monday, we went on a tour of the United States Capitol, which was really something else. Although I've visited Washington a few times, I had never visited many of these historic buildings, so I was very happy to be a bit of a tourist. After some quality time at the Capitol, we headed back to the Westin to pack our things, and then we were off to Union Station to return to Manhattan.

When we saw Death of a Salesman last year on Broadway, our administrators had said that we would likely get to have a talkback about the performance at some point with Philip Seymour Hoffman, who graduated from Tisch in 1989. We were very lucky to have that opportunity on Monday, April 22nd, which happened to fall right near the end of my senior thesis film shoot.

After a fantastic sixth day of shooting my advanced film You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory, the Tisch Dean's Scholars had an amazing talk with Mr. Hoffman. I asked Mr. Hoffman about what kind of adjustments are most helpful for him in between takes on a film set, and his answers to all of our questions - ranging from his working relationship with director Paul Thomas Anderson to his days as a student at NYU - were really honest and helpful for our group of young artists. His candid talk with us was one of the highlights of the past four years.

Alas, all things must come to an end, and on Monday, May 13th, there was a final dinner for the graduating Dean's Scholars at the House on 17th Street. It was very sad to say goodbye to the wonderful heads of the program, who have done so much for us - Anita Gupta, Jessica Smith, Jean Chen-Villalba and Chris Chan Roberson - and it felt significant saying goodbye, since we can more or less call ourselves the founding class of the program. It's amazing to think about the number of extraordinary plays on Broadway, discussions with brilliant alumni, dinners at amazing restaurants, dance performances, baseball games and events all over the city that this group allowed us to experience. More than that, though, if it wasn't for this program, I wouldn't have been able to go to NYU at all. 

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Film Reviews - Blue Jasmine and The Spectacular Now

Spoiler warning for both films reviewed below.

Blue Jasmine

Blue Jasmine is writer/director Woody Allen’s best film since his incredible Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). Like Crimes and Misdemeanors, this new film is closer to tragedy than comedy. Allen has made some extraordinary films in the past few years, including Midnight in Paris (for which he won an Academy Award), Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and Blue Jasmine is the crowning achievement of his recent work.

Jasmine (Cate Blanchett, in one of the finest performances of the year) has lost everything – her husband (Alec Baldwin), an investment banker arrested for fraud; her wealth, including her Park Avenue mansion, taken by the government in the aftermath of the scandal; and her sanity. She arrives in San Francisco to stay with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins, also amazing), telling a million lies to everyone in sight. The film hauntingly intercuts Jasmine in present-day San Francisco attempting to rebuild her life with scenes from her life as a wealthy New Yorker, almost as if we’re reliving her past with her.

Blue Jasmine has one of the most inspired ensemble casts of any recent movie. Some of the most underrated actors currently working are used here to perfection, including Peter Sarsgaard as an aspiring politician who genuinely loves Jasmine, Bobby Cannavale as Ginger’s passionate boyfriend Chili (how our ideas about Chili shift throughout the movie is a testament to the genius of Allen’s writing), and Andrew Dice Clay, who gives the film an unexpected heart as Ginger’s ex-husband.

Jasmine may make mistakes and lie about her past, but the film isn’t afraid to acknowledge when she’s right, which makes her downfall even more tragic. What’s remarkable about Allen’s film is how it neither condemns nor endorses the moral failings of these complex characters. Blue Jasmine defies expectations at every turn, and my evaluation of every character was challenged with each new scene.

At the same time, Jasmine is responsible for nearly everything that ends up destroying her, and watching her lose her mind, muttering to herself and reenacting moments from her past, is pretty devastating – especially since Allen gives us such a vivid sense of the darkness that consumed her perfect life in Manhattan. In a film full of characters who delude themselves into happiness, Jasmine is the least successful of them all.

The Spectacular Now

The Spectacular Now features two of the most complex teenage characters I've ever seen in a film, played by Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley in two of the year's best and most natural performances. Filmed largely in unbroken two-shots, which allow for performances built by posture and body language as much as they are by close-ups, this is a film full of scene after scene that does everything right – there isn’t a moment in the film that rings false.

Sutter (Miles Teller) is a semi-alcoholic underachiever who is the life of every high school party. His longtime girlfriend, the beautiful and popular Cassidy (Brie Larson), breaks up with him near the beginning of the film, and, drinking his sorrows away, Sutter wakes up one morning on the front lawn of wallflower Aimee (Shailene Woodley). The two start spending time together, despite not being part of the same crowd.

There’s a scene early on in the film in which Sutter takes Aimee to an outdoor party, attended by what you might call the more popular crowd (when offered a beer, Aimee says she doesn’t drink, and it’s clear that she doesn’t feel entirely comfortable with this crowd at first).

As soon as they arrive at the party, Sutter looks across the crowd and sees Cassidy talking to her friends. As he instigates a conversation between Aimee and a few other people, his attention is focused squarely on Cassidy, who he still hopes to win back. Once Aimee is comfortably engaged in a conversation with the others, Sutter has done his job, so to speak, and he heads over to Cassidy, knowing from their online chat the previous evening that she’s still interested in him. Sutter and Cassidy talk and flirt a little bit, as Sutter seems certain that he is the master of his domain – he has not one but two potential romantic conquests at the party, and, for the time being, he can leave Aimee aside and focus on Cassidy.

Suddenly, Cassidy’s new boyfriend walks up to them, and asks her to leave the party. As Cassidy leaves with this new guy, Sutter is devastated. But he thinks, okay, no worries – I’ll just go to my back-up girl. But when he finds Aimee, she’s hitting it off with another young man! Sutter interrupts their conversation and asks Aimee to walk away with him.

His assumption – that Aimee is a fish out-of-water and will be lost at this party without him as her guide – backfires quickly. There is such an amazing power shift that occurs so naturally in this scene. Sutter feels that he has the power to pick and choose between his multiple romantic conquests, only to realize that he was deluding himself with his first option. So, he scrambles to the “back-up” girl – only to see that she has become engaged with someone else in the interim. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen scenes that understand the whims and anxieties of young people in ordinary but often overwhelmingly painful social settings so well.

There are many scenes in The Spectacular Now that similarly moved me. At their high-school graduation, Sutter and Cassidy have a conversation in the bleachers that evokes an indescribable kind of sadness. She’s not mad at him after their break-up and subsequent almost-getting-back-together – in fact, she jokes that he will always be her favorite ex-boyfriend. For Sutter, though, you almost get the sense that it would be less painful and easier for him to move on from Cassidy if she simply never wanted to speak to him again, and that would be it. But instead, it’s something a little more melancholy. She’ll remember him as kind of a joke – Oh, Sutter, that guy I once dated, he’s funny ­– and move forward with her life. As she leaves him standing alone in the bleachers, his graduation robe open, I felt an immense amount of sadness for these characters.

The film defies every expectation, never once following the expected path. In a lesser film, for instance, Aimee would try to get Sutter to stop drinking and perfect his behavior, but here, she actually starts drinking, too. She develops a dependency on alcohol and gets “worse,” in a sense (and, ultimately, Sutter realizes this and wants her to stay away from him, knowing that he’s bad news for her). 

There’s also the expectation that Sutter and Aimee’s relationship will be tested by Sutter cheating on Aimee with Cassidy. Wrong again. The film instead presents a real impulse – at first, maybe Sutter does want to get back together with Cassidy, and Aimee is simply a temporary rebound relationship. We aren’t meant to judge Sutter because of that – the film presents this in an honest and understanding way. If he had his way in the beginning of the movie, he probably would forget about Aimee entirely and get back together with Cassidy. But the fact of the matter is, he can’t win her back. And, once he accepts that, he ends up falling in love with Aimee. You can think what you want about him, but, like an actual human being, Sutter is complex and has contradictory feelings about multiple people (The Spectacular Now allows every one of its characters to exist with these kinds of contradictions, just like this year’s Frances Ha and Before Midnight).

In perhaps the most powerful scene of the film, Sutter’s boss – who loves him as dearly as anyone else and turns a blind eye to his drinking habit – meets with Sutter in his office. The boss says he can only keep one employee at his store, and he wants Sutter to be his main employee. However, he asks Sutter to promise that he will not come to work under the influence of alcohol ever again. Sutter honestly tells him that he cannot make that promise, and you watch as the boss, who cares and loves Sutter deeply, wants to tell him to get it together, but he can’t – he’s not the young man’s father, and ultimately, he almost admires Sutter for his honesty. This is a tough scene. My heart breaks for both of these characters.

What works so well about all of these scenes is that we’re able to read the intentions and desires of each of these young people so clearly, as they try so hard to appear cool and act natural. The not-always-obvious social violence and exclusion that happens right before our eyes is articulated with such grace and complexity, and the oversimplification of social ostracization that occurs in even the best recent coming-of-age films (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) is completely absent from this film.

I’m not mentioning the wonderful passages of the film that involve Sutter visiting his father (the great Kyle Chandler), but suffice to say that The Spectacular Now never missteps. The director is James Ponsoldt, and I'll be first in line for his next film.