Friday, June 22, 2007

A Mighty Fine Mike Was He

The day after Penny and I celebrated our 12th anniversary, I learned that Mike Rokoff had died. He was only 68, and (everyone who knew him would agree) one of the swellest, happiest, most human of beings. I've been obsessively bummed out about it ever since.

Mike was one of those solid, soulful, heart-of-gold guys who should live forever. Absolutely authentic, goofy, and good down to his bootsoles. He never tried to be anyone but who he was. He loved everyone for who they were. That last sentence sounds over-the-top, but I've never known anyone who could empathize even with pain-in-the-ass people the way Mike could.

I sat next to him for the better part of a decade. Much the better part. He shepherded me through a new job, when I became his creative partner in Hallmark's foray into pre-Internet electronic media in the mid-1980s. A couple of years later, he saw me through a divorce, inviting me to move into the spare bedroom at the house he and his wife Donna had opened up to so many over the years. And I did. It was during that month, as I hunted for apartments and tried to keep my sanity, that I began to learn the secrets of Mike's legendary happiness:

Take a bath every morning.

Draw cartoons on a little over-the-tub desk as you take a bath every morning.

Laugh loudly at the cartoons you draw.

Make fun of the morning news, adding word balloons to newspaper photos of national figureheads.

Always be checking out new music and lending recordings you've made.

Smoke a pipe, and look good doing it.

Be a Cubs fan--always good for laughs.

Travel all over the place, and have goofy misadventures to tell people about later.

In addition to loving your wife, admire her. Express your admiration all the time.

Never miss a chance to make a ridiculous pun.

Celebrate the stupid stuff that happens to you (Mike's post-hernia-operation party became an annual event).

Revel in the personality quirks of your kids and your friends.

Try any food at least once.

Listen more than you talk.

Love animals.

Retire before you have to.

Move to the woods to live deliberately.

Build your dreamhouse. Live in it with your darling. Invite everybody over.

Laugh, laugh, laugh.

And when you do yet another good thing for yet another person, and the person wants to pay you back, just say, "Pass it on."

Man, I'm gonna miss that guy. The last time I talked to him, early this year, he was feeling good, having survived a heart attack the year before, and having gotten Donna through a cancer scare. They were back to their lives, starting to plan trips and get-togethers. He sounded great.

The first time I called Donna after the memorial service, I got the answering machine. Mike's voice was still on it. I just about fell over. He had such a deep, rumbly, warm smile of a voice. It instantly reminded me of sharing an antique church pew with Mike in the office living room at staff meetings. When he spoke, his voice would vibrate through the wood of the bench and I could feel it in my bones.

Mike resonated. Best vibes of any friend I ever had. He made the life of everyone who knew him better. I still can't believe he's gone.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Ciao, Sopranos

Look. Anybody who has problems with the ending of the final episode of The Sopranos either Just Didn't Get It or is working too hard to interpret it (and wouldn't have liked any other ending either). I heard some nitwit on NPR psychologizing David Chase, how the success of the show caused its creator to resent the audience, so the ending was just a big fuck-you. No.

The ending is perfect. Here's why:

1. Ambiguity. Gotta have it. To wrap things up clearly and neatly would be a betrayal of the entire series. Our last image is Tony looking up from his onion rings as the door to this little Jersey diner opens. Did Meadow just walk in? Is the front door the only door opening? Or has that suspicious-looking guy re-emerged from the bathroom like Michael Corleone in a Members Only jacket? Who are those other guys who came in before? Who, or what, is Tony looking at?

2. Family. It's about the mundane details and tensions of family togetherness. This has always been the heart of the show. Not the Mafia, not the idea of a gangster in therapy, but Tony and Carmela and their kids.

3. Dread. It's about how all those quotidian details play against a backdrop of peril. Who can honestly say, however annoyed or momentarily confused you may have been by the sudden blackout, that your heart wasn't pounding at the end of that sequence? It was masterfully written, acted, shot, and cut. That mounting sense of dread, where every moment, every move, seems to portend something--how often does television pull that off? Roughly never.

4. The Blackout. What's the beef about this, really? That the suspense wasn't resolved? This isn't the last episode of 24--for that matter, it's not The Godfather III. It's the last episode of a show that took no prisoners, that never pretended to some moral apologia for its conflicted characters. It was ruthlessly existential. Remember when Bobby and Tony had that conversation about getting whacked, how you probably don't even hear or feel anything? (I wonder how many references to numbness there are in the show? There's a thesis in there somewhere.) The blackout is an argument for Tony's final comeuppance. BUT. If it's just Meadow finally arriving for dinner, and the guy in the bathroom is just some guy, it's just as good an argument that this family's life, the dread surrounding it, Tony and Carmela and all their unresolved issues, the kids' journeys...don't stop. Life goes on.

5. Don't Stop. As a comment on a previous Sopranos post reminded us, this show had the greatest music, the smartest use of music, of any TV show ever. Some of it is Tony's music--the classic rock and '80s pop music that he and Carm grew up on. Here, Tony flips through the tableside juke's selections, passing up Sinatra for Journey, "Don't Stop Believing," a smarmy little romantic tale set to overproduced guitar & synth. The lyrics are deftly interwoven with the scene so that the "small-town girl" line coincides with Carm's arrival, and the "city boy / born and raised in south Detroit" line gets overlaid with dialogue and doesn't distract. The song builds. The scene builds. Little references seem to apply variously to the Members Only guy, Meadow trying to parallel park and run across the street into the diner, etc. But mainly it's the feel. The way they use songs on this show, even when the lyrics offer a pointed message, the feel is really the thing.

6. Respect. It's the opposite of a fuck-you to the audience. It's the kind of ending that makes people leap up out of their seats. I looked over at Penny, and she was all Home Alone: hands to her face, mouth open. We both said, "Oh My God." What a thrill. Did the blackout really confuse people into thinking their cable went out? The music cue seemed to make it obvious: We stop on the line "don't stop." And then we don't stop, because we get to make up the rest for ourselves. In my version, the guy comes out of the bathroom and he's nobody. Meadow sits down. The family has dinner. They have a conversation, probably at least one argument. And then they go back to all the rest of their problems. And because Tony is who he is, the anxieties don't stop.

I hear they shot two other endings. I wonder if that means they shot them with different songs, like a Sinatra version? Maybe Tony gets hit in one, or maybe it's a mess that leaves a leatherette booth full of Sopranos shot full of holes? Or maybe the feds show up, just as the family's ordering...

A feast of possibilities. Greatest show on earth. And it's over. Boo-hoo, and bravo.

(Oh, can you imagine how bad this show will be, cut up and dubbed to rebroadcast on Bravo? Yeesh...)

We return now to our regular programming. Despite my interest being somewhat piqued by John From Cincinnati (great writing, superb casting--is that surfer kid splendid as an emotionally-cramped 13-year-old, or what?), I think I'll be getting more writing done on Sunday evenings. And that's a good thing.

Monday, June 04, 2007

An Odd Dozen

Today, my dahlink and I mark 12 years of wedded bliss. What I really like about this photo is that it shows what a knockout Penny is. It’s a good picture, if you ignore the other half of it. Why do photos of me so often suggest a guy who pulls a groin muscle when he smiles? The seam of my t-shirt under that weird collar-up number I’m wearing makes it look like my arm has been artificially attached to my shoulder. Which it has. I’m actually one of those jointed paper dolls -- two-dimensional, put together with brads.

What a weird, winding, wonderful, alliterative twelve years we’ve had. How about a thumbnail history, year by year? Shortly after learning that I was remarrying, my ex decided to marry a guy she’d known for only a few weeks, which meant that...

Year 1: My older kids (16 and 13 at the time) moved to Idaho. This was the first big hurdle Penny and I had to clear. She wasn’t ready to be a full-time mom, and I was practically hysterical trying to keep my kids from moving 1600 miles away to live with a guy who, by the time the move was underway, I would meet once and get the creeps from. It was a mess. By the end of the school year, that all fell apart, the ex moved back here completely broke, and the kids moved in with us. Also that year, Penny took a big trip to Israel and came back a vegetarian. And we bought a new bed.

Year 2: Adjusting to life with kids in our little house on the prairie. Oliver lived in the basement, Emily in the refurbished attic, and Penny and I spent a lot of time in psychoanalysis. Don’t get me wrong: I loved having the kids with us full-time instead of just weekends. But, as Penny will attest, she simply didn’t know what she was getting into. It was a year of shattering all the illusions she’d had about marriage. And if I still had any, I guess mine were shattered, too.

Year 3: Emily off to college, and Oliver moving back in with his mom, which was a big blow for me. I’d really wanted him to stay with us. I didn’t have time to stay depressed, though, because just as Emily went back for her sophomore year...

Year 4: Penny went through the windshield of her car. This whole year was about recovery from a serious head injury, starting with five days in the hospital and Penny not even knowing who people were, to staying at home with her and walking her around the house until she could get her balance, to aphasia-addled conversations that began with questions like, “Is there a bathroom in this bathroom?” She spent months in a program at the Rehabilitation Institute, relearning how to do all kinds of things. We have pictures of her holding dozens of get-well cards from friends at Hallmark. No idea what I’d have done without all the support.

Year 5: What a weird one. Against steep odds, my brother and I make a deal on “Big Bad Love,” which I’ve been working on for several years. Against even greater odds (and just as my parents move back to town), Penny gets pregnant. Oliver graduates but decides to take a break for a year. He and I go off to Mississippi to make the movie. So I essentially abandon Penny for two months that include a brief birth-defect scare. Turns out to be nothing, but still. She still makes fun of me for ditching her. Then more scares, and total bed rest for the last month of 2000...

Year 6: and the first month of 2001, which culminates in Jonah. A two-hour labor and voom! He arrives, just barely, thanks to the life-saving work of Dr. Brenda Smith. Big Bad Love debuts at Cannes and gets picked up by IFC. Jonah gets picked up by me every night and walked around the house until he falls asleep. Penny picks up a contract with Hallmark, having quit her job to write from home. Oh, and Oliver’s off to college, the towers come down, and we’re at war.

Year 7: Still not much sleep, and as a bonus, still no sex, due to various post-baby complications, but that’s none of your business, and Penny will kill me if she reads this. Jonah already shows signs of weird genius, but doesn’t walk until almost 17 months. Oliver quits school two weeks into his sophomore year. Emily with a B.A., living in Chicago. Penny loses her grandma. Our cat dies. We get through it all. I make Penny an anniversary present that’s more elaborate than anything I’ve done before or since.

Year 8: I confess, it’s all a blur. At some point in here, I had to learn how to write a TV movie. This was “Dawn Anna,” for the Lifetime channel. Among other salient events in this story, our heroine has a brain condition that means she’ll have to learn to walk again. Like I’d know anything about that. Meanwhile, Penny is doing amazing things with Jonah, bringing him out of a social and emotional shell that seemed perilously like what we’d read about Asberger’s. Man, the kid is bright -- and now, socially engaged, picking up emotional cues, the works. I really do give Penny the credit for this.

Year 9: “Dawn Anna” is the #1 cable program (exluding pro wrestling) for its week. Wow, an actual audience... and then it gets one Emmy nomination. Other than that, it’s more blur, but if Jonah is three, this is the year he asks me, “When will all these days end?” Meaning, when will life be over? Good question, three-year-old. Welcome to adulthood.

Year 10: When will all these Bush-era days end? My brother and I get a couple of movie projects simmering, both of which comment on the current mess. Penny and I get swallowed whole by various home renovations and the relentless routines of work and kid. We look up, it’s been ten years, we have no idea where it went.

Year 11: I turn 50. Jonah off to kindergarten. Penny working on book concepts with illustrator friends. I convince the filmmaking faction of the family to option T.C. Boyle’s “Drop City,” and proceed to spend every spare moment trying to put this monster into the cage of a screenplay. By fall, we have a sprawlingly hefty but truly thrilling draft. Bob Berney, having moved from IFC to Picture House, loves it and is shopping it around. We’ll see...

Year 12: Jonah trajecting toward first grade. Emily still teaching in Chicago. Oliver now studying music in Fairfax, CA. Freed from her Hallmark contract, Penny's now writing for about a dozen other companies and concerns. I’m still head over heels for her. We buy a new bed. It’s about time.