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What Do Madonna, Sean Penn, James Cameron, and Charles Bukowski All Have in Common?

By Michael Murray | Miscellaneous | August 19, 2011 |

By Michael Murray | Miscellaneous | August 19, 2011 |

Facebook serves many purposes, one of which is to remind you of the birthdays of your acquaintances. At a glance you can find out that it’s your old friend Carter’s birthday, and then instead of actually doing something about it, you can just post your well wishes on his wall, thus giving the appearance of being more invested in the event than you actually are. I mean, all you have to do is throw in an exclamation point or two and you’re good to go!! Of course, such gestures have always seemed obligatory and transparent to me, and so I strive to write something that makes it look like I’m trying a little bit.

This situation came up earlier in the week and in an effort at being “creative,” I decided to see what celebrities shared my friend’s birthday, thinking maybe I could spin something clever out of that. It turns out that I could not, but I did discover that all sorts of different celebs had birthdays this week, including Madonna, who whether she likes it or not, is now 53.

Without any sort of context, if you were to suddenly shout the word Madonna at me, I would not think of Jesus or Christmas decorations, but of her video to the great dance song “Like A Prayer.” It was a sexy number, that, a jubilant bustle of cleavage and a little, black dress that plays as well in straight clubs as it does in the gay ones.

Still, I’ve never really been able to imagine sitting down and listening to her music, because I hate her voice. It’s thin and squeaky and conveys nothing but an infectious commercialism, and I would never do anything to intentionally come into contact with it. For me she’s always been a video artist, and her music can hardly be understood or discussed unless seen in the context.

The latent potency of her videos was made most vivid to me one day while at the dentist. Now, I hate the dentist more than you do.

Way more.

I’m always a demoralized and jittery mess when I’m there and the only thing that I can ever remember lifting me out of this misery swamp was a Madonna video that was unfolding on the TV affixed above me.

It was the 2000 song “Don’t Tell Me,” which of course, on it’s own is entirely forgettable, but with Madonna in chaps and wearing a tight black top that looked like it was sprayed on, it became a work of genius. Using all the best talent the world had to offer, she made a really visually engaging video that was dead sexy, but in an almost artful, subtle way. I simply could not take my eyes off of it, falling into all the suggestions it presented, and for the four and a half minutes it played was able to completely forget about the drilling, poking and bleeding that was happening to my head, and so Madonna, a most happy birthday to you!!

On a related note, Madonna’s one time husband Sean Penn turned 50 this week. Now we all know that Penn is one of his generation’s great actors. The word gets over-used, but he really does have a kind of GRAVITAS to him, sucking the attention of the audience like some gravitational force from outer space. But regardless, what really impresses me about the man isn’t his acting, but his directing. The guy is top notch and his 2001 film The Pledge was very nearly a brilliant work. It was spooky, lyrical, haunting and entertaining, and if you haven’t seen it, well, you should give the man his props for his 50th and watch it.

Speaking of directors, James Cameron just turned 57, and whether you love him or hate him, you have no choice but to acknowledge the influence he’s had on our popular culture. I’m not a big fan of his work and was one of those people who rejoiced when he lost the Oscar for Best Picture in 2009 to his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow, for her excellent film The Hurt Locker. Cameron’s offering, Avatar, was little more than a collection of recycled images and themes from his previous work seen through the lens of CGI and 3D. It was all sound and fury, signifying little, and I thought that Bigelow’s handling of the “action/adventure” genre much more assured and nuanced.

It’s long been an unsubstantiated theory of mine that women make better directors of these types of movies than men. I think of the underrated disaster film Deep Impact, which was directed by Mimi Lender or Mary Harron’s interpretation of American Psycho, and in them, like The Hurt Locker, you can see an attentiveness to subtext and expression of empathy that informs the story, stirring an emotional as well as adrenal response. By contrast, the masculine films tend to be as subtle and predictable as boners, which of course, have their place, too, but Cameron’s amplification of everything, his need to turn all gadgetry up to 11, only highlights this disjunction.

Regardless, Cameron has moved the idea of cinema forward, and whether you agree that the gaming culture his narratives seem to cater to can be as rewarding as those upon which they’re built, is immaterial, as it’s a good and useful debate, and so James Cameron, I wish you a happy birthday, too!

Charles Bukowski would have turned 91 this week, and as many know, he was the writer who more or less validated drinking as a form of artistic expression. He made it feel okay, even noble, to be a fuck-up. His unremitting dissolution and ragged, bottom-of-the-barrel appearance, coupled with his naked appetite for all that was indulgent, visceral and even selfish, was a liberating to discover. It offered hope, reminding us that having an effecting and authentic voice wasn’t strictly reserved for a learned elite, but was something that each one of us living down in the muddy trenches, had as well.


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