Tag Archives: Woody Allen

(ON TOPIC) Goodbye America, Hello…Somewhere Else

Part 2: My Cousin Who Travels the World (And Why She’s a Voice of a Generation)

When the subway rumbled from a world below, my knees buckled and I clutched my red-cushioned seat, the kind you’d expect to find in a movie theater. Behind me, two classmates discussed their favorite cafés in Paris. It was my first film class at NYU.

“That’s where Amelie lives!” I thought, keeping my mouth shut out of fear of revealing what I considered at the time to be an extreme naïveté.

You see, I used to think it was luck that allowed people to travel abroad; by those confines, then, I wasn’t very lucky. Now four years later, I believe it’s more a combination of choices and money.

This is Allyn. She's my cousin. Allyn likes to travel. A lot.

Meet Allyn. She’s my cousin! Allyn was born a gifted mathematician and is able to work short-term jobs that fund her travels all around the world. (“Swimming and math. Two things people pay crazy amounts to learn,” she says.)

Allyn got the travel bug after participating in Semester at Sea during college. She recently graduated and has been wandering the world ever since. Allyn has administered the treatment for schistosomiasis to 54 patients while volunteering at a free medical clinic in the Philippines, and she’s also been flown to a vacation island and put up in a five-star hotel by prominent Chinese businessmen.

In other words, Allyn’s life isn’t normal. She’s using her acknowledged advantages as a middle-class American to tackle the disadvantages of those in other countries. It’s ballsy. As someone who’s been eternally tied to the social clock and therefore crippled by the idea of leaving America with no plan, I respect her happy-go-lucky frame of mind. She left the country this year with a one-way ticket, while I hopped on a plane to California with a printed Google map of restaurants and bars in the neighborhood to which I was relocating from New York City. This makes sense given our respective life mottos:

Allyn

1. Don’t make plans.
2. Expectations reduce joy.
3. Travel is the only thing that makes you richer, so waste all your money on it.

Jonathan

1. Always make plans.
2. Always set expectations so you can work to exceed them.
3. Happiness is the only thing that makes you richer, so waste all your money on Beyoncé concert tickets.

It used to be hard for me to talk to my cousin while she was living abroad. I think it was my early NYU-self acting up. I didn’t like that I was jealous, but I couldn’t help it. I was in the middle of my ninth internship while she was frolicking on exotic islands with Chinese businessmen. But now I’m working at Pixar, and that’s pretty cool, too. My path makes sense for me, and her path makes sense for her.

But I digress.

To return to the original questions: Is our culture worse off than it was decades ago? And is travel the only way to fix it? I hope not. People are always going to long for a previous era. (Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” offers a telling example of our eternal fickleness. As Gil yearns for the 1920s, Adriana says, “I’m from the ’20s, and I’m telling you the golden age is la Belle Epoque.”) And how can you say we’re culturally worse off when, in reality, we’re only able to experience a sliver of culture throughout the entirety of our short lives? My friends at NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour discussed this topic recently. “You’re going to miss almost everything,” says Linda Holmes. Sure, traveling may open your world, but your acquired culture doesn’t necessarily make you better. And it shouldn’t induce a feeling of superiority over those who haven’t had the opportunity to travel. Allyn, for one, has been to dozens of countries but always comes back, evermore humbled and appreciative of what her home has given her.

It’d be remiss to ignore the obvious caveat to this conversation as I sit on my couch, MacBook Pro on lap while perusing Comcast OnDemand and NPR podcasts (#thingswhitepeopledo). I’m lucky to be able to ask these questions. We’re lucky. In addition to the inevitable limit on our cultural intake, there’s yet another fundamental human limitation that prevents us from maintaining a global perspective in every given moment. We can’t always think beyond our screens to notice how lucky we are. Sometimes I feel guilty and selfish when blogging about things like this. It’s so about…me. Blech. Every time I say “we” or “us,” I have no idea if this is actually the case for a whole generation of people. Of individuals, you know?

It’s comforting in moments like to these to think of people like my cousin helping patients abroad, or the people in a small town in Connecticut coming together amidst a disgusting tragedy that hit a little closer to home. Our culture hasn’t gone wrong, you see. There’s good stuff and there’s bad stuff both here and abroad, just as there used to be, and just like there always will be.

Before Allyn and I ended our most recent conversation online, she wrote, “Ugh I’m bored, idk what to do with myself.”

No she’s not. She just has a flurry of choices before her and has yet to make a decision. She’ll make a choice though, and then many, many more after that. And you will, too.

Carry on.

To infinity and beyond,

Jonathan

Advertisements

(ON TOPIC) My (Respectfully Rejected) NYU Graduation Speech

There are some things you only learn with age, like that Santa Clause isn’t real. Or that just because a male model at Abercrombie & Fitch offers to take a picture with you doesn’t mean they want to be your friend. Or that graduation speeches are often filled with lofty quotations and overwrought references to “The Times That Be” and Bookface.

So how to resist possibly stereotypical yet comical references to, say, the different types of students that populate Tisch? How to overcome expectations in a society supersaturated with things and stuff? I’m going to get personal. And if I’ve done it right, you’ll feel like you’re a part of this story by the time I close with the line “To infinity and beyond.”

I’m an unlikely candidate to speak at graduation for two reasons: 1) I didn’t choose to go to NYU after graduating from high school. And 2) I spent the majority of my pre-NYU life as an observer, someone who sat on the metaphorical sideline of things, afraid to speak up and partake and do.

Elementary school. I never laid in the grass as a kid because it made me nervous, but I did play sports because boys played sports in elementary school and I wanted to be a boy. I wanted to fit in because fitting in felt good. I knew I was gay ten years before I told people I’m gay.

Middle school. Holding hands, kissing, S-E-X. I wasn’t doing it, but I was sneaking into the magazine aisle at the grocery store to check out Justin Timberlake’s new outfit in the latest issue of “Tiger Beat,” and I was quitting gymnastics because I was afraid that my classmates would make fun of me for doing “a girl thing.” I quickly zipped myself further into the sleeping bag of myself.

High school. The teachers and other voices in my life made me feel like AP courses and a 4.0 GPA took precedence over cultivating personal interests, but I took AP Language & Composition and learned how to write from one of the best teachers I’ve ever had, asked a girl to prom, and then graduated and spent the summer before college watching Pixar movies and inevitably letting them inform my view of the world because when you’re raised in a small town, books and movies are your world.

Then “College.” I started as a freshman at the University of Michigan. In other words, I started off at “college” before transferring to NYU, which offers…something else. Something more like real life, but not really. I took Sociology 101 and learned that psychologist G. Stanley Hall described adolescence “as a time when boys engage in masculinizing activities that set them apart from girls,” and I agreed with this and started to understand the feelings I’d had when I was younger. I also learned that frats and football can be deemed a lifestyle, and it was one that I quickly grew tired of. I left the closest friends I’d ever had to get closer to my dream of working at Pixar, quickly learning what it felt like to experience profound sadness in conjunction with deep-seated excitement.

In January of 2009, I transferred to Tisch as a Film & TV Production major. In other words, in January of 2009, my Life began here. New York City, abuzz. The greatest city in the world. Truly a fiction of a rare kind, owned by anyone who stomps on its grounds. A surreal place where I can watch my creative idol Woody Allen playing clarinet at The Carlyle Hotel, and then—and often without warning—end up on Ludlow and Delancey amid the smell of pee and cigarettes. The outdoors. Or, as author Fran Lebowitz says, that thing you must past through in order to get from your apartment into a taxicab. Or maybe you prefer Woody Allen’s New York, which he says has been plagued since the 1920s by welfare payments and narcotics and crime. But my Life began here. And Fran devoted her life to writing about it. And Woody says it’s the most romantic place in the world and still lives here to this day.

I went to Brooklyn and saw where “Do The Right Thing” was filmed, and then I hopped on the A train and walked into Tisch where I stood in the elevator with Spike Lee and he said “Thank you” when I told him I liked his hat and shoes. I learned that calling things “Felliniesque” was accepted and appreciated by some, and dismissed as pretentious by others. I hustled to get over eight internships on feature films and TV shows because I saw classmates with glittery resumes and industry connections that intimidated me and that made me anxious, and then I learned that Woody from “Toy Story” was right—jealousy is one of our ugliest colors. I returned Katie Holmes’s bra to Victoria’s Secret while interning on my first feature film, I saw my name in the credits on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” and then I went to London to train at the BBC. In the end, I learned that getting these internships to impress others wasn’t really what it was all about.

I watched people get addicted to technology, favoring virtual relationships over human ones in which listening became a thing of the past. I grew tired of talking at parties to people who seemed to have stock answers to everything. Yeah. Yeah. I guess so. Yeah. Then I became fascinated by how the need to travel runs deep in the psyche of some people but not in others, so I took time off, visited my brother in China, and told all my friends and family that I’m gay.

I learned that I care very deeply about things, so I started writing and learning how to share it with others. I’d show friends and classmates my scripts and short films with caveats like, Oh but it’s not that good, and then I’d watch them at home by myself and smile because of what it meant that I’d created something, that I’d started to unzipper myself from that aforementioned sleeping bag to breathe and live and share. I learned from MIT researcher Deb Roy that “I” is one of the most used words in the English language, which is ironic considering how connected our world is. I spent the last five weeks of college working on a science TV show and it taught me that the elements of the universe mix and mash in incredibly precise patterns that allow us to exist as we do. I learned that human existence, when it really comes down to the atoms of things, is unlikely. I learned that college taught me what I don’t know, and I was humbled by this.

We. Us. Human existence. What had I learned? Had I learned anything? How do you know what you know?

While thinking about time and space can make you feel insignificant, store it as ammo to be used every morning when you wake up. The thought of being able to do things should make you wake up every morning and, at various speeds and intensities, work toward your dreams in the short life you’ve been given. As Billy Wilder once said, “You have a dream so you can get up in the morning.” Forgive me. That was so Tisch of me. To quote a movie director, you know. And also very hypocritical as I began this speech by poking fun at graduation speeches that call upon stereotypical yet comical references. But this is okay because of another thing college taught me. The frequency with which you may find your beliefs shaken and challenged can be unsettling. Just know that everyone is entitled to his or her own opinions, unless his or her opinions are wrong. For example, the statement “Toy Story is a bad movie” is factually incorrect and the person who utters it deserves to be corrected. At the risk of continually verbalizing my resume, I should mention here that I’ve spent the last three months interning at Pixar, my dream company, and I can tell you that “Toy Story” cannot be a bad movie because it was produced by magicians.

I’m hopeful for the future. I am. We should be. Adolescent males and females are less imprisoned by gender stereotypes, and interventions are happening; the Trevor Project and It Gets Better campaigns are saving young gay lives every day. Organizations like TED are spreading important and progressive knowledge, and actions are being taken to get us to communicate on more meaningful levels. If you feel that politics are failing you, then I encourage you to look somewhere else like independent cinema or pop culture for inspiration. We’re thriving. We’re saturated. We’re busy. Be a part of it. While we’re all the center of our own universes, we’re really interdependent creatures functioning through the relationships we have with others. I challenge you to unplug yourself from technology, look up every now and again, and connect. Know your history, like yourself, and then figure out what you want out of the world. Go do something, but whatever it is you do, do it with confidence and passion and heart. Go forth in the world with the peacefulness of a snow day. Or don’t. You don’t need me to tell you what to do. Be selfish, but stay considerate and kind.

I like the moment just before I walk out my door in the morning, when I turn the lights off and everything goes black, and in that moment, if only for a second or three, I’m invisible and can do whatever I want without anybody watching. I usually stand still and take a deep breath, probably the last calm one I’ll have before the lights of the day hit me and things start happening. I say to myself, “Yo world. Yeah you. Here I come, you beautiful, beautiful, unlikely thing.” I hope we can all find peace in our lives.

I sincerely thank you all for listening, and I look forward to talking to some of you today and tomorrow and into the future, either virtually or in this beautifully absurd little thing called the Real World. K. I gotta go. I haven’t checked my phone once in the last five minutes and I’m getting antsy.

To infinity and beyond.

An Ode To Woody Allen

White credits (Windsor font) dissolve in and out over a black screen.

FADE IN:

 

Abrupt medium close-up of Alvy Singer doing a comedy monologue. He’s wearing a crumbled sports jacket and tieless shirt, the background is stark.

ALVY:

There’s an old joke. Uh, two elderly women are at a Catskills mountain resort, and one of ‘em says: “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know, and such…small portions.” Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life.

————————————————————

And that’s how I fell in love with Woody Allen. He had me at Windsor font.

This scene comes from the opening of “Annie Hall,” which I saw for the first time in high school. He turned 75 this week, so I thought I’d put together a list of the top five things he’s taught me since my first “Annie Hall” viewing:

1.    Therapy is cool.

2.    Self-deprecation is funny.

3.    Love letters to New York look best in the form of a movie.

4.    Sometimes life, and the people in it, suck.

5.    Leaving your longtime lover for her daughter is made OK with the simple line, “The heart wants what it wants.” (He actually said this when leaving his longtime lover for her daughter.)

I’ve always wondered what it would be like to meet Woody, and it’s this list I think I’d share with him. I’d probably also tell him I like his glasses, to which he’d reply, “I like yours, too. They look like mine.” I’d probably chuckle like a little schoolgirl and then be too nervous to say anything more. After all, what do you say to Woody Allen? What do you say to the man who’s written over sixty movies and left an indelible mark on the worlds of comedy, filmmaking, and writing? What do you say, more important, to the man who’s already been showered in admiration by fans and celebrities for decades? How could I ever make him remember me?

What follows is a journal entry I wrote on December 14, 2009, which is forever stored in my long-term memory as the night I almost met Woody Allen.

Tonight I saw my hero. I sat in a small restaurant at the Carlyle Hotel on the Upper East Side and listened to him play clarinet for nearly two hours. He walked in, head down, and silently took his seat. He took out his clarinet, put it together gently, nodded at the band, and began to play. And I sat just a few rows from him, tapping my feet and bobbing my head the whole way through.

It’s funny because I know he was right in front of me, but it didn’t feel like he was actually with us. He seemed tired and timid but silently happy (or sad), and I expected this. He was in his own little world, and I wish I could’ve been there with him. He shut his eyes most of the time, and even when he blew and nothing came out while playing “When You Wish Upon A Star,” I know he still heard the music inside.

I feel like I have so much more to say, but sometimes, extraordinary events are hard to immortalize on paper. In any case, I hope I remember this day as one of the most memorable in my life. You always learn best through reflection, so maybe I’ll write more about this in the near future.

 

It’s almost one year later, and I still think about that night often. It always makes me smile. (Please watch the video. It’ll make you smile, too. I recorded it on my mediocre digital camera, but my battery died so I unfortunately didn’t get to film the whole song.) I left one part out in my journal, most likely because it didn’t make me happy to put down on paper at the time. After Woody left the stage, my friend and I rushed around back to meet him. Fans often do this after he plays at the lounge, so I knew we might have had a chance to actually talk to him. When we made it to the hallway, though, he was nowhere to be found.

“You just missed him by thirty seconds,” a hotel employee said.

The line started playing over and over in my head. “You just missed him by thirty seconds. You just missed him by thirty seconds.” Thirty seconds. Thirty seconds! I wrote him a letter a few years ago and have carried it around with me in the case I ever had an opportunity to meet him, and this was my chance. But I missed him by half a minute.

I think I was more upset than my friend was, so she tried to cheer me up by taking me to eat pizza and pretending we had met him. She said things like, “Oh my god I can’t believe we just met Woody Allen! Wasn’t it great? And remember how he was coming down the steps and he tripped but you were there to catch him?” But I really wasn’t in the mood to play along.

Nevertheless I’m no longer upset, as 1) there are more important things in the world to worry about and 2) I’ve had time to think about it and have decided that maybe it’s for the best. Now the image I’ve had of him in my head ever since I first saw “Annie Hall”—a talented, mysterious, troubled man—will stay intact. In truth, I think I prefer it this way.

But just in case, I’ll have my letter waiting.

The letter. I drew a little picture on it based on Stuart Hample's brilliant Woody Allen comics.