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No. V: The Netflix Documentary Edition Or How to not be like Tom Cruise


1. The Mensch

I’ve heard it argued that giving to charity is in fact a selfish act, especially when the givers are the super rich – CNN images of Brad Pitt helping to build houses in New Orleans after Katrina come to mind. They’re just assuaging their guilt or projecting a false image of goodness goes the argument. I’ll never fully buy it. It’s too cynical and, besides, I have my father’s voice in my head: Jon, people can argue that charity is self-serving, but at the end of day they are still giving to charity. In other words when Bill or Melinda Gates donate another hundred million to cure Africa of AIDS or what have you, say what you will about it being a drop in the bucket for them, but it's still miles more morally impressive than John Travolta buying himself his 5th plane or the second (!) runway he felt he needed to have leading up to the front door on his property. Or, at the risk(/pleasure) of picking on Scientologists, how about Tom Cruise, who when he isn’t rappelling down a mountain for money on screen, and who, in fairness, only owns a single $30 million jet, as far as the internet tells me, has built or at least, according to wired.com, was planning to build a $10 million bunker under his $30 million home? The threat of aliens and all that.

But what does any of this have to do with a documentary about a pianist directed by Ethan Hawke, a non-Scientologist Hollywood actor with nowhere near the wealth (never mind the utter lack of plane) of the aforementioned stars?

Well, first of all Hawke, in laymen terms, is still an ultra-rich Hollywood actor, and he certainly has his share of detractors. What’s interesting though is that it’s not his superficiality, his religion or his sexual tendencies that are attacked nearly so much as his being accused of being pretentious. It’s probably true too. I mean, just as I’m sure Bill and Melinda aren’t eating at Taco Bell for a cheap night out, I rather doubt Hawke lacks in arty snobbery. But in recent years he's, to my mind, proved himself pretty beautifully capable of getting beyond himself. The ten summers of his life he devoted to helping Richard Linklater complete “Boyhood” is but one example of how much this guy dedicates himself to his craft.

That said, when I discovered that the actor who at one James Franco-phonian moment decided he was a novelist (I, um, ahem, have read and actually own his first Salinger-voiced mediocre book), had now gone and directed a documentary called “Seymour: An Introduction” (named after one of Salinger's last published stories no less) I was ready to detract and detract hard. All the ravens needed now was to have the greasy haired thespian star in this little vanity project.

But he doesn’t star. When he's in the doc it's to support, or to ask, or to listen, or wonder.

Seymour Bernstein, the hero of this quiet story, is an old New York Jew (is there any other kind?). Once a world-class pianist, he gave it all up at the height of his career to teach the thing he had become so masterful at. In other words, he gives up all the creative world seems to aspire, to instead become what is too often frowned upon, or taken as lesser. As in the ignorant old adage: those who can't, teach. Except in this case, those who damn well can and can brilliantly, teach even better. Not surprisingly then, Hawke, Seymour's dear friend and acolyte, it would seem, is sharing with us of this older man's wondrous humility and generosity - perhaps the greatest gifts a teacher can have, other than wisdom, which is Seymour's real gift. A man with the wisdom to instill in his students not only about how to hit the keys, or make use of the soft pedal, but also how to live life. Seymour is the polar opposite of a shmuck. He is what us yids, New York or otherwise, refer to as a mensch. Of the highest order.

This is a film about art and ambition and the dangers therein. But also about what it means to give. In a sense then it’s an instructive film on how not to become Tom Cruise.

2. 10,000 Hours, But Why

This one's a doc. About a bloke. Opening a restaurant. In Chicago.

Of course he's a top chef and it's the height of ambition that this cook's after. But this isn't just another Jiro dreaming of his brand of sushi. Because in this flick, ambition itself, like with "Seymour", is under the lens. And the helluva narrative hook of this chef's back story which I wouldn't dare spoil is .. well, quite something.

It's a doc for the foodies -- the chef is Michelin stars high end. A doc for the creatives and entrepreneurs in reality or spirit -- those of us fascinated by watching someone try to make their dream real. And it's a doc for the story lover. That back story! Shudders.

3.The Hero

Tom Cruise makes me angry because he matters. I want to say he doesn't but he does.   Because he's been a Hollywood hero for over 30 years and like Madonna, the sheer endurance helps give credibility. But much more to the point, also like Madonna, Tom Cruise is one of THE matinee idols of my childhood. My generation grew up with him. He was the American hero in the greatest sense. F**k he was Top Gun! The smile then was real. The ambition seemed noble, impressive. He was handsome and charming, but he was also a risk taker. There was an artist there. An actor who worked with challenging directors and material. Those of us, cough, cough, so far into our 30s we're sore lower back-ing straight into our 40s, consider "Magnolia" a relatively recent Tom Cruise film. "Magnolia" because that was about the last time Cruise did anything resembling risky actual art-like business. It came out seventeen years ago. And as I think I've quoted my wife before, ever since, on film, he just seems to be running.

Off film ...


He just seems pathetic

Enter Ayrton Senna, the F1 race car driver from Brazil and subject of Asif Kapadia's magnificent documentary. One of the finest I've seen. I've left "Senna"for last simply because it's kind of obvious and I recognize many of you have likely already seen it. But felt remiss not to include.

Before even the opening title cards have appeared we see Ayrton's mother standing by his side presumably before a race. Ayrton has a boy, perhaps a nephew, that he's holding, the child resting his head on Senna's shoulder. And Senna's mother, speaking to the camera, this elegant and open lady telling the media she is so worried about her son's chosen profession. Because he's such a good son, she explains. And while she does, her sweet faced son with the very definition of boyish good looks doesn't hide from the camera as the tears seem to well up in his eyes. This is how we meet a guy about to become one of the bravest and most loved athletes ever to emerge from Brazil, soccer/football stars notwithstanding.

A handsome young man from a wealthy family who has made clear he isn't getting into Formula One for the money. A handsome young man from a good family who care about his family as they do about him. A handsome young man who exposes his very soul, and a soulful soul it is, and all this in the first three minutes of the film.

This is a film about a hero. It's a film that Kapadia so effectively has us admire from the get-go. We CARE about him. Because he's a hero worth caring about. I went online to go back and read some reviews of the film - all of them raves - to help remind me what made it so great. The word that comes up again and again is 'moving'. The documentary about a race car driver is so moving. Going back just to watch the opening minutes to write this brought that flood of emotions back.

Asif Kapadia wouldn't win an Oscar for "Senna"; he'd have to make another documentary for that to happen four years later, a documentary about a Jewish girl from North London named Amy Winehouse. I recommended that documentary in my first newsletter and lord knows, with Kapadia's batting average chances are I'll be recommending his next.

Finally, "Senna" is the kind of film I most wish to push on my sisters and their sport-averse ilk. Because like all great sports films (fiction and non), like all great films period, what really matters is character.

As always, sharing is caring. If you know someone who would find this interesting, please share.Patrons and just generally large sums of cash, bags of gold coins, doubloons, what have you, are welcome.

Thanks for reading.


PS No Scientologists were harmed in the making of this newsletter.