Salvation and Stu Elliott

I was never one of those gifted people who are called to teaching.  In fact, teaching was one of two things my teen self had decided, absolutely, I would never do.  As the oldest of seven children, I was adamant I’d have none of my own, and as a misfit who was terrified by teens, I was intractable in my resolution to eschew any contact with them.

To be a writer was all I wanted, and when I did have children — after all, life and love do intervene —  I envisioned myself a kind of Bohemian Doris Day typing away while her brood ate the daisies, but eventually I needed a profession with a steady income that afforded me the freedom to spend the kids’ vacations with them, and so I landed in teaching.  I got certified and cut my teeth in Phoenix, but my first long-term job was in Connecticut.

By the time I was hired, I knew that I actually liked youngsters, respected their wit and wisdom, felt comfortable among them.  I realized that this might be the result of the fact that those around whom I was actually uncomfortable were my own peers, and I was aware that I would never be good at navigating the rarified world of school system politics.  But over the years, to my own surprise,  I managed to evolve into a competent teacher, a good friend to many of my students, and a strong advocate for them and for my drama program.  I did so because Stu Elliott saved me.

Stu strode into my life as a welcome surprise.  He was a Clintonesque colossus, tall, engaging, boyishly charming and cunningly smart, and he was newly appointed Principal of the school whose grounds abutted the half-acre we had just purchased after our move from the desert. I had dreamily thought — and dismissed as fantasy — that I might be hired to teach there, and to my great delight, Stu chose me to fill a vacancy in the English Department.  When he hired me,  Stu gave me two gifts: some great advice and the drama club.  The drama club came first.

“The school hasn’t had one for years, and I think you’d be good for it, ” he crooned.  Who could resist that?  I could have argued for a Literary Magazine, but I knew, as an English teacher, I would be inundated with student writing, and the Drama Club felt right.

Then, as we shook hands over my contract, Stu looked me in the eye and said, “You’re gonna break the rules.  I know that.  I’m okay with it.  But do me a favor.  Whatever you do in the classroom or in your extracurricular duties, write a rationale.  Give it to me.  If it makes sense to me, then no matter how crazy it seems to the rest of the world, I’ll cover your ass; if it doesn’t make sense to me, I’ll tell you, and you’ll rewrite your plan.”

I never had to do a re-write.  He protected me like a guardian angel, and I loved him in the same innocent, dumbly admiring way the kids did.  He dropped into classes, shook his head in amusement, left singing along with us; he counseled me often when colleagues complained that I “got away with murder.”Stu candid

Too few years later, after a long illness had kept us missing him terribly, when he had just begun to segue back to attending school daily, Stu was hit by a drunk driver during an early morning jog, and he died before the ambulance reached him.  When the shock wore off, when we had accepted his departure as best we could, I would have expected teaching to become unbearable, but he had prepared me.

Before the illness, Stu was reaching up in his career.  He wanted to be a superintendent, and a few opportunities had presented themselves.  Called in to his office one afternoon, I had to nod and agree when he made me promise that I would support and if necessary promote the ascension of our assistant principal to his position.  “She’s not like me, Carla,” Stu said.  “She will drive you crazy because she’s all about the rules.  But she’s good for the school, and so long as you remember to keep writing rationales, you’ll be okay.”

He was actually wrong.  I did campaign for the appointment of his chosen successor, but the rationales never really helped.  Our new principal hated me, told me I was evil because I introduced craziness to the kids, but it didn’t matter.  And the reason it didn’t matter was that Stu had given me the Drama Club, and she could not wrest it from me.

The kids who come out for a drama program are often the smartest, the bravest, the nerdiest kids in school.  They can also be the most beautiful, the most popular, the most conforming.  That’s what is so great about a drama program — it brings the various worlds of high school together in a realm of mutual understanding and respect.  When I recruited the high school football team to play sailors in South Pacific, the cheerleaders came too, and suddenly at the homecoming ball they were all dancing with the “geeks,” singing “There is Nothing Like a Dame,” over the Stevie Wonder single playing on the disk jockey’s turntable.

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Michael Goglia on the set of Crimes of the Heart, which he designed, 1995

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No one had ever trusted me with a screwgun before, and I felt powerful. It was heady

I learned from all my students every day, but the kinds of lessons I learned in drama club, I’d never have learned elsewhere.  When Michael P. Goglia came to me as an 8th Grader and said he would like to “help you out” by designing and building sets, I looked at his skinny little frame and thought, oh sure; but he and his father came every time the auditorium was available, and they indeed built wondrous sets out of the cheapest materials one can imagine, sets Mike had designed.  And unbelievable as it may sound, Mike ran his crew like a well-oiled rig, engaging boys and girls, who had hitherto wielded nothing heavier than a joystick, in the construction of sets, hanging of lights, striking of heavy objects.  More unexpectedly, Michael taught me how to use a Makita (electric drill), how to construct a flat so that it’s sturdy enough to withstand a production but easy enough to dissemble during strike, how to create the illusion of water where none exists, etc.  I had studied acting and had been in productions, but no one had ever trusted me with a screw gun before, and I felt powerful.  It was heady.

When we did Our Town, I fretted about the sight lines for people in the first several rows of the massive auditorium.  Michael said, “Let’s rake it.”  Sure, I thought.  We can do that.  How?  Michael taught the others, and me, and I had no idea how huge this was until later that school year when the town meeting was called to vote on whether to eliminate my nominal stipend from the budget and thereby eradicate our program.  At that meeting, Misha Magoveny, who rarely sought the limelight for anything, addressed the assembled citizenry and explained how she would never have learned what the devil she was studying trigonometry for had it not been for drama.  “See, Ms. Stockton and Mike said we were going to rake the stage, and I couldn’t imagine how you figure out how to do that, but Mike said, ‘You use sin and cosine to find the relationship of the angles, and you go from there.  You know how to do that already.’  And all of a sudden, I understood what my math class was trying to teach me.  We found the angles, and we raked the stage!”

Every day brought new challenges.  The town council rented the auditorium out from under us in the middle of tech week.  The assistant principal approved a cheerleading extravaganza on the stage the same day as a dress rehearsal.  A flood in the storeroom wiped out our expensive muslin (for set construction).  The fencing team made regionals, and half the cast and most of the crew were unavailable for opening night.  Each new stumbling block ended in our laughing at the way we had worked out solutions, creatively, collaboratively.  We all learned the true meaning of teamwork every time we congregated.

Some of our problems were more devastating.  Two of our kids lost fathers within a year of one another; we sustained the loss by suicide, by car accident and by illness of fellow students, and we were assaulted by the insurmountable reality of losing Stu.  Having one another got us through the worst of times, and having one another provided more occasion to celebrate in the best of times.
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My personal battles with my political foes were rendered worthwhile by the faith my drama kids and I had in one another.  Two of my more schadenfreude-inclined colleagues reported that I was smoking marijuana with the kids in the costume room; another reported that I was perhaps, well, you know.  Because of the kind of relationship I had with the kids, no one ever took any of that seriously, and if I had to pay penance for choosing “subversive” material like For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls or Crimes of the Heart, the fact of our alliance fueled my passion.

We traveled to conventions together, went to shows in New York, participated in competitions, created magic on the stage.  Most importantly, we all grew, expanded our horizons, learned to roll with the punches and go with the flow.  We learned to count on one another, to trust one another, to be unafraid to need one another.  We created a family that never superseded our biological families but that always strengthened our faith that family is the institution that matters.

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The cast of The Wind in the Willows, no-budget, student produced and directed children’s play.

Over time, I oversaw summer programs, several in-school programs, and one fabulous conservatory program funded by the State of Connecticut that brought professional and educational theater under the same roof, where NY actors and tech experts taught, mentored and shared the stage with the kids, and we ALL benefitted equally.

When I left teaching, I left because I could no longer fight, and I was always expected to fight.  There was never enough money for the program, so I spent — to the great detriment of my personal kids — far too many hours alongside the indefatigable drama club members, running car washes, mowing townspeople’s lawns, operating cake sales, selling goods at garage sales, etc., to raise the funds we needed to survive.   Everyone agreed that the theater program was worthwhile, but when money is tight, you eliminate fluff, and a theater program is almost always perceived as pure fluff.  I just got to a point where I was exhausted, depleted, drained of my resources.  So I left, and I have never regretted that I did.

But every once in a while, I like to remind myself how glorious it was to be part of that amazing body of youngsters who peopled my programs, how eternally grateful I am for the love and the wisdom they shared with me, how inextricably changed I remain because of the time I spent with them. They made me a better classroom teacher, one who is equally grateful for those students’ presence in my life, and together they all made me a better person.

I am a lucky, lucky woman.  And I owe it all to Stu Elliott.

Whom I continue to miss . . . every day.

Save Our Souls

My friend buried her older brother Donnie the other day.  Despite the fact that she buried her husband less than a year ago, and she’s still a young woman, my friend carried herself with stalwart grace, and only once did she lose her composure.

“He shouldn’t ‘a’ died so young.  You know?  It was his meds.  No one paid attention to his health.  They just wrote his ‘scripts and sent him on his way.  No time for assessment.  No time for monitoring.  Just move ’em in, move ’em out.  No one in the system’s interested in overseeing the whole person of a mental patient; they treat the symptoms, satisfy themselves that he won’t kill himself or anyone else, and they’re done for another six months.”

I nodded, not knowing what to say.  I’m no fan of the American health care establishment, and I had had another dose of that reality the day before.

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A friend whom I’ve known for many years invited me to lunch for the first time in a very long time, and we talked, as one does with an old friend, of many random things.  Finally, after nearly three hours of catching up, I asked about his children.  He talked about one, a college freshman, and laughed with fatherly pride at the son who complained vigorously about all the extraneous displeasures of college life — the food, the noise, the weather — but seemed happy enough with his classes.  After a few uncomfortable minutes, I gathered the courage to ask about his other child.

The answers were vague, and, having had enough experience to know the signs, I sensed that all was not well.  Then I found the wherewithall to ask pointedly how the boy was.  Really.

“He must be at least nearly out of his teens by now,” I averred.  “Last time I saw him, he was so cuddly and so. . .”

“Beautiful.  He was the most beautiful child ever,” replied my friend.  Then he was quiet again.  I waited.  Then I had to ask.

“Is he in school? Working?”

“No.  He’s home.”  A long pause, some throat clearing, fingernail cleaning.  Then,  “He is schizophrenic.  And he’s terrified to leave the house.   To tell you the truth, he’s nearly twenty, and he goes nowhere.  In fact,  I haven’t had a night out since we adopted him.  We can’t leave him alone.  He’s incapable of functioning without at least one of us there. ”

Knowing that my friend’s finances are, to say the least, strained, I nodded.  “I guess you can’t hire help.”

“Ha.  That’s a laugh.  If he were developmentally challenged and needed care for retardation, we could get state help.  But for mental illness?  Nothing.  I finally got him on Medicaid, and they’re trying to take it away because I make too much money — which means I make over $7000 a year — but he’s an adult.  No insurance I could possibly afford helps with any of it; we get some breaks on meds, but . . . ” His voice trails off.  He doesn’t really want to complain.  God forbid he seem to feel entitled.

Our conversation turns to the woeful nature of the American approach to mental health.

Insurance is expensive.  And except for the premium types of coverage, few offer assistance for mental health providers, who are also expensive.   Obsessive compulsions, ADHD, anxiety are not considered sufficient reason to warrant insurance coverage, and yet sufferers can be paralyzed by the effects.   Depression and bi-polar disorder are more readily recognized as debilitating, but in order to be helped, the patient often must first be hospitalized for treatment , then marked for life as a result of a violent act against self or others.

As expensive as they are, drugs have replaced the therapist’s couch as coping mechanisms.  It’s rare, except for those for whom money is no issue, that a psychiatrist spends hours with a patient planning behaviors and exploring strategies for self-preservation.  As it was with Donnie, the psychiatrist’s main function is to write the prescription every several months; no more than a perfunctory visit from a social worker sustains the patient between visits.  The appointments with the psychiatrists take no more than 15-20 minutes, and they are basic question/answer sessions.  “How do you feel?  Any headaches or stomach difficulties?”  No examination accompanies the writing of the prescription even if, as in the case of my friend’s brother, the patient is clearly struggling physically.

Donnie, a strapping man who leanly stood 6’2″before he began taking his meds, had grown morbidly obese.  He labored to breathe, complaining of COPD symptoms and of trouble staying awake.  When he died, he was in his early fifties, and no doctor had taken the time to seek out the causes of his discomfort.  His insurance didn’t allow for more than the annual physical, and there was no alternative to the drugs that controlled the mental disease, drugs that necessarily weakened and abused his body.

The problem is not confined to mental health.  We’ve all seen the ads on television promising that if you just choose a fancy cancer treatment center, you will be cured, that drug addiction will lift away when you fly to that special island where ultimate rehab resides, and we all hope we will be lucky enough to get a transplant in the event one of our organs shuts down.  But choice of hospitals and retreats and transplants are governed by money, which is largely controlled by the extent to which insurance covers us.  When another friend needed a second kidney transplant, his wife was a willing donor, but in order to get that kidney into his body, my friend had to prove that he had the resources to see his doctors regularly and to buy his nearly $40,000 worth of medications EVERY YEAR.

But despite the fact that the problem is universal in the realm of medical care, it’s more likely that a patient who cannot get the necessary treatment for cancer or renal failure or hepatitis, etc., will die than wind up on the street unable to care for himself, a burden to his family, a weight on society’s midsection.  In some ways Donnie was lucky.  He took his meds, was fairly lucid and found some measure of happiness before he dropped dead of a massive heart attack.  The moderately ill person who is handicapped by any one of a number of disorders that render him unable to hold down a job, stick to a path, find personal satisfaction is more likely to disintegrate slowly over time, growing more anxious and depressed and lonely by the day.  She may be homeless or displaced, and she will likely be angry and frightened every day of her life. imgres-3

With financial resources that ensure freedom of choice, anyone can find a good physician for any ill.  If at once you don’t succeed, you know you can always try again.  But for those of us with limited resources, a list of providers is offered, and if no one on that list is expert in the illness for which we need care, we are simply out of luck.  Therapists abound, but a good therapist us a precious commodity, one that is too often impossible to find.

I honestly don’t understand why the masses don’t take to the streets over health care.  Every day families — middle class families, families no one would have heretofore thought of as indigent or needy — bury loved ones, children and parents alike, who should have been cured.  Women die in childbirth in this, the richest country in the world, at an alarming rate, and homeless people wander our cities where they live in misery and threaten our safety because they are not being treated for the illnesses that have disabled them.

We tolerate our own demise.imgres-1

It Hath Made Me Mad

Cold, sharp rain enveloped my city on the February morning when I returned to the neighborhood Loew’s to see Silver Linings Playbook for the second time.

urlI love attending the first show of the day.  Now that I’m a senior, I no longer need the price break; there’s something about the people, whose sparse presence affords me a sense of community while I luxuriate in the near isolation of a private screening.  The audience seems to be there to see the film, seriously, not to make out or have a conversation; people turn their cellphones off before they are instructed to do so, and they eat their popcorn quietly, sipping their water thoughtfully so as not to obstruct their own ability to follow what’s going on on screen.

This day, however, perhaps owing to the nasty weather outside, things began uneasily.  Sitting behind me was a young woman, clearly out of her comfort zone; she was wet, squirmy, audibly unhappy.  Waiting for the previews to finish and the feature to begin, she complained to her companion, “Why is the sound up so loud?  I don’t think I can stand it if they don’t turn it down.  I came here to see a film, not to have my eardrums punctured.” I wondered why the sound bothered her too much.   I read somewhere that hyper-sensitivity to sound is a sign of mental illness.  I tried not to turn around to look at her.

When the film began, I heard the girl sigh mournfully, her breath heavy with equal portions of aggravation and passion. “I thought this was going to be funny,” she complained.  “When will it get funny?”
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Then, during most excruciating moment of the film, when Patrick Solitano (Bradley Cooper) accidently slugs his mother (Jackie Weaver) and is attacked by his protective father (Robert DeNiro), the voice from behind me wailed softly, “I need to leave.  This is too painful to watch.”

I no longer thought the speaker aberrant and began to wonder how many others in the theater were experiencing the same level of discomfort.  Promoted as a comedy in the vein of a slightly more mature Judd Apatow kind of project, the film must shock people who settle into their seats and find themselves bombarded with the painful realities of familial dysfunction.  Most of us are at least a little put off.  Who among us has not lived through moments like the most disturbing ones in the film?

The Cooper character is identified as insane.  He has bipolar disorder, and others treat him as though he were contagious, distrusting his pronouncements, which, to be sure, are proclaimed, as he admits, “without a filter.”  They constantly instruct him to take his meds, meds he detests because they make him lose focus.  But look around him.  Is he honestly the craziest person in the group?  Ever?

When I was a kid, I had a relative who was hospitalized for depression.  She underwent shock treatments, was sequestered for months at a time in various institutions; then she was treated like a looney, derided and mistrusted by her nearest and dearest.  She had children, and it was particularly difficult for them, as they were left alone in a gossipy world without her protection.

I often wondered what she could possibly have done that got her put away.  Was it any less “normal” than the fights my father and I would have — physical fights, I’ll have you know — over whether I would go to church or what I would teach my sisters about sex?  Like Cooper, my relative was surrounded by a tribe of entirely unhinged personalities, yet she was the one who wore the scarlet I on her forehead.

When my relation was finally released from her incarceration, she was expected to take all manner of drugs, mostly the kind that made her drool and babble inchoate thoughts.  It was 1968, and the world was turning upside down, yet when she lost herself to uncontrollable weeping over the death of Bobby Kennedy, her doctors upped the dosage on her soporifics.  As if she were out of whack in a sensible world.  Meanwhile, I was running amuck pretending to myself that I was gainfully engaged in a (choose one) protest movement when all I was doing was drowning my fear in sex and cigarettes.  Who among us was sane?

What is the nature of sanity?  What constitutes successful coping?  In Silver Linings Playbook, the “sick” one tries to resolve the conflicts around him, to soothe the raging beasts who founder without ballast.  He counsels his best friend (John Ortiz) to fix his marriage and lose his destructive anger; he responds to his brother’s condescending attempt to make conversation by offering an embrace and saying, “I have nothing but love for you.”  He makes a futile effort to stop the tailgating frenzy that erupts when some of his theoretically rational compadres can’t control their urge to drink, fight and spew racial epithets.  All the while they are calling him the cuckoo, the wacko, the non compis mentis.imgres-3

His fellow nut case Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), whose embarrassed family attempts to keep her hidden from the rest of the world, solves the worst crises as they arise and puts broken Pat back together again while her entirely conventional sister is coming apart at every seam.

On the way out of the theater, I strained to hear what my neighbor would have to say.  I wondered, since she had entirely quieted down and had seemed to be engaged in the film, what she would think.

“I hated the first part of it,” she was saying as I slowly pulled my coat on and feigned looking for lost items of clothing.  “He just made me feel so empty.  I’m like that.”

The woman she was with muttered something I couldn’t hear, and they walked backward out of the theater, watching the credits, as I always do.  “I feel insane because I want to do and say what’s right, and it just gets so mixed up so much of the time.  And the world is so distorted.  How can anyone be sane?”

Just like the rest of us, I thought as I turned to take my place at the back of the rest room line.  The assembled women were quiet.  I wished I knew how many of them felt what that young woman had articulated.

I feel it every day.  Never more so than when I try to make sense of the news.

Two months ago, a young man named Adam Lanza took a bushmaster, an AR-15 automatic rifle and enough rounds to eliminate a large platoon of combatants into an elementary school.  There he gunned down twenty-six peaceful, harmless innocents.  The papers said he was insane, that he was being treated for emotional and mental disorders.  Yet it was his mother who owned the weaponry, stockpiled the armory in her home and then left it entirely accessible to her son.  Was she sane? Really?

Ultimately, Pat Solitano was lucky.  He was sent to the hospital by the law as a punishment for beating up his (theoretically reasonable) wife’s lover after he discovered them together in his home shower.  He got good care, found a very helpful doctor (Anupam Kher), and he learned strategies and skills with which to cope.  Most of us have to pay for our treatment, and it’s very expensive.imgres-2

That Adam Lanza’s mother, I, the young woman behind me, so many others probably need the kind of firm and gentle guidance Solitano gets from his Dr. Patel is a given.  But most of us cannot afford it, and health insurances are loathe to provide the needed coverage.  Besides, a good doctor is often very hard to find.

Which means that the vast majority of us are out there, swiping at stationary windmills, shouting at the moon, jostling one another with angry stares in subways and grocery stores, groping for inner peace.  It’s a problem.  A real problem.  One that needs to be dealt with in a big way.

There is nothing cute or dismiss-able about David O. Russell’s  brilliant Silver Linings Playbook.  It is a very real statement on how we view our fellow human beings, how we treat one another, how we drive one another crazy.

And it’s been effective.  Even Joe Biden and Barak Obama are initiating dialogue by citing the film.  But that’s only a start.  We all should be doing more than talking about it. We should be studying it, and we should be discussing what we can do to fix what is shattered and yet preserve what ain’t broke.  We should be insisting that the Nancy Lanzas get help right alongside their messed up kids.  We should be fighting for improved mental health care coverage and non-drug interventions.  Instead of stigmatizing people with emotional and mental disease and disorders, we should be standing with them, insisting they are more like us than different.  We need to recognize that it’s a crazy world we inhabit; loving one another is our best defense.

We must find ways to eliminate the desire to act out our anger, to employ guns to murder and create.  There are alternatives.  We will support them.

The last thing I heard my young neighbor say as she grabbed onto the revolving door to leave the theater and braced herself to meet the pelting sleet was, “It’s growing on me now.  I’m really glad I saw this movie.  You know?  It was really good, really true.  Don’t you think?  She pulled her hood up over her ears.  “It’s nice to know it’s not just me.”

My Personal Silver Linings Playbook

What was your favorite film this year, Carla?”

All over Facebook, my friends are pontificating about and citing personal nominations for this year’s best films. They’re not particularly judicious about it. “You should go back and see that film again,” one told me when I disagreed about a favorite film. “You clearly didn’t get it the first time.” Another, posting ebullient praise for a film that left me speechless with disappointment, concluded, “And if you don’t agree with me, you might as well unfriend me right now because I’m going to have to let you go because you are too unintelligent to be my friend!”

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So  I am here to respond in an equally patronizingly dismissive way, and I hereby declare myself a nominating committee of ONE.

My first action will be to remove most of the awards for anything or anyone involved with the making of Lincoln, with the exception of Tommy Lee Jones for his portrayal of Secretary Seward; I offer neither sycophantic praise for Anne Hathaway as Fantine nor demeaning slurs for Russell Crowe’s Javert in Les Mis; I’d prefer to extinct the film altogether. I would proclaim recognition for elements of Looper, a film I expected to hate but absolutely admired; and I’d add a few superlative categories for Skyfall, since its best elements don’t really fit in any of those that now exist.

In fact, in choosing the Best Film, I’d throw every 2012 movie off the list except for Argo and Silver Linings Playbook. These two pictures could duke it out for ALL the awards; they deserve to be nominated in every existing category and to have new ones invented so more of the work could be honored. These are two pictures that exist in a class by themselves in my personal playbook. But to answer the overwhelming question, “What was your favorite?” No hesitation: Silver Linings Playbook, my candidate for Best Film of 2012.

I am thoroughly prepared to be unfriended by the many zealots who preferred other films; but I was deeply moved by Silver Linings Playbook, and in the end, choosing a front-runner is a subjective, emotionally-driven pursuit.

In a year when there was enough real-life horror and violence to satisfy the most voracious blood lust, SLP offers none, and I admit I am swayed here by my gratitude. Even the fighting, replete with bloodied nose, was understated. This is a film that isn’t concerned with horrifying the audience; it’s there to entertain, and while it entertains, it teaches a bit as well. What a relief.

Never preachy, never sanctimonious, Silver Linings Playbook is that mirror unto nature perfectly positioned so that we behold the human condition. This is a well-told tale about characters who may seem, from time to time, to be strutting and fretting about their stage but who, in fact, are groping along in an earnest quest for happiness. They hurt each other along the way, and they lose themselves in self-centeredness, but these are characters who, despite all the baggage and the damage they’ve incurred from their various pasts, honestly live to love and be happy. They have learned to function in a dysfunctional world and have become, as a result, paragons of dysfunction. And yet they are at heart rational beings who learn what they already intuited, that the only panacea for any of our pain is commitment to one another.

There is no villain in Silver Linings Playbook. When people get hurt, when people violate one another, they do so out of an inability to live up to expectations — their own and others’ — and they fall prey to their own lack of patience. There is no conniving, no evil plotting; and the only weapons they wield are verbal affronts and over-zealous fists. Since there is no villain, there is no hero, not even an anti-hero.

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The protagonist in SLP is neither abundantly good nor adorably bad. He is Pat – Patty to his parents, with whom he lives — Solitano, Jr. (Bradley Cooper), released, at open, from institutionalization for beating up the man he caught naked in the shower with his beloved wife; he is bipolar, a creative thinker fighting his demons every minute of his every day and has no illusions about the effect of drugs and booze in his life. He would be very grateful if he could just remain sober and prove that he is sane and lovable enough to make his estranged wife return to him. Well, that’s what he thinks he wants for most of the film, and what makes the whole thing so very satisfying is the complexity and completeness of his arc, a very palatable arc. When Patty has his epiphany, it happens in a quiet, subtle moment that demonstrates Bradley Cooper’s real chops as an actor and David O. Russell’s ability to find them. Which is something Russell does really well — remember the acting in The Fighter? — for Anupam Kher, Jennifer Lawrence, Julia Stiles,Chris Tucker, Jackie Weaver, and the entire Linings cast.weaver-robert-deniro

But nothing he elicits from the other actors comes close to what he gets out of Robert DeNiro, who has, of late, seemed to be trying so hard to make acting a struggle to be way over the top that he’s been making my teeth ache. Here DeNiro is as natural and as believable as he was in Deerhunter. He’s superb in SLP, inhabiting the confused but steadfast Pat Sr., who wants to be paternal but isn’t exactly sure what’s needed from him, what’s expected, even what’s acceptable. He’s funny without reaching for the joke, and he’s poignant without manipulating us toward tears.Deniro

The Solitanos are a troubled family, who succumb to forces we rarely talk about anymore. This is a family that lives in our real world, which wants everyone to act alike, think alike, respond to stimuli in a prescribed manner, and where drugs are omnipresent, revered as magic potions that can erase every little aberration. Patty is constantly being reminded to take his meds, but he hates them, and he has become an inmate in his own private Cuckoo’s Nest, plagued mercilessly by unlikely, unwitting familial Big Nurses. He meets Tiffany, also afflicted with some mental health issues,  who, too, has chosen to eschew the soporific effects of her medications. In one brilliant exchange, the two run through a litany of the drugs they know and despise and the failure of each to be even marginally appeasing. No filmmaker since Gus Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy) has been so lucid in examining the state of the true American drug war, in capturing how the magic pills that promise to make things perfect only succeed in shifting things out of focus.Russell 2

SLP strikes a deeply resonant chord because so many of us, afflicted with social ineptitudes, with anger issues, etc., understand too well the fine line between agitation and insanity, and it elucidates the many ways that parents are disempowered by their grown children while at the same time they are stripping those same kids of their ability to thrive.

In the end, the film is most affecting in that it affirms that the only drug that fixes anything or anyone is love.

That’s a lot to pack into a funny, well-acted, plaintive, beautifully orchestrated, carefully directed film. What an achievement.

The Silver Linings Featurette

Clash of the Titans

            You know why New Yorkers are so depressed?  (beat, beat) It’s because we have seen the light at the end of the tunnel,
and (sigh) it is New Jersey. Ba-dum bum.

As an undergrad at Columbia, I worked as a receptionist in the School of Engineering.   I loved my job for two reasons: first, because I had a lot of time to do my own work while I kept watch on the front desk and fielded questions; and second, because I could listen bemusedly to the idle gossip of the students and professors who were constantly milling about the offices.

A favorite topics of discussion, and one that kept the entire entourage laughing, was the preponderance of New Jersey residents who commuted to Columbia for work and study.  Considered an inferior lot by the resident New Yorkers, they became the butt of a favorite euphism.  “No, s/he’s not dumb; s/he’s from New Jersey.”

New Yorkers and New Jerseyans have always rankled  one another.  And for good reason: we’re a lot alike.  Despite some historical divergences, we come from a nearly identical background.  The Dutch and the English — followed by at least a smattering from every other nautical country in the world  — settled in both places and created a multicultural community conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all merchants are created equal to the task of making money.  New York and New Jersey have beaches and farms and cities and quaint small towns, and their people are reputed to be abrasive, loud and insistent.

Since the 19th Century, people have chosen to live in New Jersey in order to work in New York or have chosen to work in New York because that is where the jobs are. New  Jerseyans have been subjugated to service of the big brother state as well as the city, and the citizens of NJ have had to pay two tax masters for their incomes, one in a state that offers no benefits for the money charged.  When I was young, the resentment toward my city was palpable; today it’s more subtle.

New Jersey and New York have a lot in common and a lot to compete over, and the states have had a tradition of rivalry that has, at times, been less than congenial.

I often imagine what it might be like if one day the people of New Jersey felt that New York had dominated them long enough and signed a pact to obliterate the city and its environs, replacing it with Jersey City as the Big Apple.

It wouldn’t be a difficult task to target NYC for ill.  A few well-aimed scuds or rockets, and whole sections of the city would fall before any defensive measure might be taken.  The playgrounds in lower Manhattan would easily be destroyed, and the bodies of small children would make appropriate poster photos for use in the manipulation of public opinion. In no time at all, NY would return fire, and all too soon, the children of Secaucus and Newark would be lost in heaps of flames, and their photos, too, would adorn the banners of the righteously infuriated.

Whose side would the world take?  The people on both sides of the Hudson look alike, smell alike, sound alike — most people outside the area can’t tell the difference between a New Jersey and a New York accent.   To a Californian, residents of New York and New Jersey are roses that pretty much smell the same.

You can see where this is going, and I am sure you get the drift of my parable.  I apologize, but I can’t help it that there is an obvious, albeit overly simplistic, kinship between this scenario and Israeli-Palestinians conflict.

Both New York and New Jersey were populated by people who arrived from somewhere else with nowhere else to go.  They over-ran the locals and set up shop, creating a refuge for others in a land that had once been hostile but now offered succor.

Palestinians and Israelis are in the same place because they are unwanted anywhere else.  They live in a hostile environment that needs considerable adaptation before it provides sustenance, but both peoples have learned a way to get what they want from it.  Both peoples need to live in the land called Israel, and both peoples deserve to stay and call one another equal.

What they need from the worldwide community is assistance in finding a way to make peace, to find a way to live together without killing one another’s children.  Both sides have suffered greatly, both sides need to stop fearing the other. But instead of encouraging peace,  the world seems eager to cheerlead for a war. Television and the web casts encourage us to be spectators, to take our lunches to a hill and root for one side or the other while we watch them gouge one another.  And the attention does little more than to egg the violence on.  Facebook is covered in posts about the evil Jews — why is it still okay to openly hate Jews and women? — and the bloodied Palestinian children and  with retorts reminding the world about the so-called Holocaust (as though there haven’t been numerous holocausts in the past century and its successor) and the horrors wrought against the Jews.  Antisemitic diatribe, answered by indignant defenses, fuel the fires of dissension between the peoples, and the violence simply escalates.

Whenever I pass through the Columbia campus, I am reminded of how similar today’s students are to my classmates and me back in the olden days.  Much as we were during the Viet Nam War, students are out in varying numbers, marching with placards, chanting, demonstrating.  Only there’s a marked change in the sound and feel of the presentation today.  Most of the protesters on College Walk favor the violent overthrow of the Israeli government.
.

“Violence is justified,” chants one large group holding a poster bearing a Magen David (Star of David), an equal sign and a Nazi Swastika; “when the people are occupied.”  “How many babies will you allow Israel to kill?”  “How many babies will you allow Hamas to kill?” Someone answers from a shadow. The chanting gets louder, the peripheral voice is hushed.

I find myself nostalgic for the good old days of anti-war protesting on campus.  Whatever happened to “Give Peace a chance”?  Or “Stop the violence.”  “No war. Peace now.”

Where are the cheerleaders for peace?  Where is the outcry against the jihad to eradicate the Jewish people?  Where is the nonviolent pressure brought to bear toward an independent Palestinian state and the coexistence of two equally liberated, fully empowered peoples to live alongside one another . . . kinda like New Yorkers and their counterparts in New Jersey?

There’s enough vitriole out there.   No one wishes for war.  Ask a Palestinian mother what she wants, and she will reply the same way a Jewish mother will respond:”I want my children to be safe and to live in peace.”Shalom and Salaam are the same word.

Hey, neither New York nor New Jersey ever really needed to be the conqueror.