Tuesday, December 29, 2015

#GOALS: 16 things I want to do in 2016

Since I prefer not to make promises to myself that I can't keep, there'll be no New Year's resolutions again this year. Instead, I'd rather focus on things I can actually accomplish. And if these 16 goals for 2016 don't come true, well, there's always the year after next year.

1. Figure out the secret to getting eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. I'd like to finally know what it feels like to be well-rested in 2016.

2. Drive on the left side of the road. First stop: The Hunter Valley. Alas, it's not coming to me. Therefore, I must conquer my fear of turning into the wrong lane and drive like the wind.

3. Continue to explore Australia. Topping my to-go-to list: Hobart, The Gold Coast, Uluru

4. Finish my second book, a collection of essays I wrote during my year in South Africa

5. Meet a reason to give up gay hook-up apps. If he happens to be from Asia or Eastern Europe, paydirt!

6. Get published in The New York Times

7. Cross at least one of these places off my travel bucket list: Seoul, Reykjavik or the Great Wall of China

8. Dive into my better-late-than-never must-still-see-TV list: Mad Men, Breaking Bad, House of Cards

9.. Return to the scene of the crime for the first time in six years. Yes, I'm talking about New York City.

10. Stop feeling guilty about relationships that have fallen by the wayside. It takes two to make or break a friendship/kinship or keep one going.

11. Skydive. Seriously. And I have Bridge of Spies on Qantas's in-flight entertainment menu to thank for the most unexpected urge of 2015. Watching a CIA guy eject himself from a crashing plane only to land in hostile Russian territory during the 1950s Cold War actually sort of made me want to jump out of a plane myself… preferably one that's not on fire.

12. Stop thinking about him… As James Taylor once sang, I've got to stop thinking about that.

13. Become a dad... or adopt a dog… or get a guinea pig.

14. On-the-job goal: Find a way to keep up with the Kardashians without making the messengers seem as mindless as what they're covering.

15. Allow myself to be more vulnerable. I'm romantic, idealistic, and I feel more deeply than the average person, but only those in my innermost circle would ever know that there are so many layers underneath the steely facade. In the last few months, I've had two very good friends tell me it's time to start dismantling the fortress around my heart... and I agree.

16. Succumb to my most superficial impulses and do a nude photo shoot (something a lot less low-budget than the one my first boyfriend Derek did on the roof of his apartment building in Hell's Kitchen in 1993). I may look better now than I did at 24, but let's face it: Gravity is only going to hold out for so much longer.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

11 insanely popular things in entertainment right now that I'm just not loving

I stand corrected on costume parties, drinking white wine at home alone, and "The Boys Are Back in Town," the joys of which I've discovered in the past 12 months after years of indifference. But when it comes to populist entertainment, there's still plenty that I'm not feeling.

Star Wars I watched the original of the series on HBO several years after its 1977 debut, and it bored me. I saw The Return of the Jedi in the cinema in 1983, and while I didn't hate it, I wasn't exactly dying for more. But "The Force" keeps coming back against my will. Aside from the coverage in which I was forced to immerse myself at work last week, I haven't given the series another minute of my time in 32 years. Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher look pretty good, though.

Sequels to sequels I enjoyed Rambo, Rocky, Indiana Jones and Star Trek as much as the next kid in the '80s, but somewhere around adulthood, I outgrew "To be continued…and continued…" on the big screen. To date, I haven't seen a single entry in any of the big blockbuster series of this millennium -- Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, The Hunger GamesTwilight -- and I don't feel like I've missed a thing.

Superhero movies that don't star Michael Keaton ...which is weird because I love a man in tights who can save the day. Maybe it's the sequel thing that turns me off.

Animated movies I was never really into Saturday-morning cartoons, and I just don't "get" The Simpsons. But I do love Disney's classics and the Peanuts gang, and I could spend all day watching marathons of The Flintstones, The Jetsons and Family Guy. Back in the '90s when we got one new Disney animated feature a year and the occasional Toy Story, I had a passing interest in them. But now that they're commonplace enough to be interchangeable, I'll always rather watch something else.

Taylor Swift I object to her phoniness, her string of celebrity boyfriends, her collecting celebrity BFFs, and her fake-shock posing, but mostly I object to her songs. I remember music in 1989, and it was a lot better than Tay-Tay would have us believe.

The Kardashians I may be forced to keep up with them for work, but you'll never get me to watch an episode of any of their shows, including I Am Cait.

The Grammys I've become the middle-aged guy I said I'd never be, the one who stopped listening to most new music years ago.

'80s nostalgia I'd say it's because I'm stuck in the '70s, but I'm totally down with '90s nostalgia. So maybe it's this: I didn't much enjoy living in the '80s in the '80s, so why would I want to keep going back there?

Kanye West I love to see him smile and listen to him ramble, but the minute he starts to rap, I tune out.

"White trash"/"Bogan"/"Fame whore" reality TV Let's face it: Putting aside the talent-based shows and the ones with celebrities (which I generally hate), how many accomplished, sophisticated people are clamoring to be the biggest loser... or get married at first sight? If I want to spend my downtime watching common people in action, I'd spend more time outside

Five billion channels and Netflix and Stan and… I love options, but who has time for all of the choices that TV currently offers? Sometimes I miss the days of three networks -- ABC, CBS and NBC -- when they could actually put together a once-a-TV-season event like Battle of the Network Stars (a precursor to celebrity reality competitions, by the way). Something's got to give, and it won't be the hours I spend doing things other than watching TV.

And five crazy popular things that I love too

Jennifer Lawrence Whether she's faking it or not, I love her when she falls down, too.

"Hello" by Adele It had me at, well, "Hello."

The new wave of hit shows led by black actors: Empire, black-ish, and How to Get Away with Murder As must-see TV for me now as those gleaming-white classics Sex and the City and Melrose Place were back then.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Veep Totally deserving of all the Emmy love -- though I wouldn't mind her sharing a little of it with black-ish's painfully underrated Tracee Ellis Ross.

Cate Blanchett in anything But especially in The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Gift, Notes on a Scandal, Blue Jasmine and Carol.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Welcome back, romance: Thoughts on Carol

First, the obvious…at least to anyone who's seen The Social Network, Side Effects, Her, or anything in which Cate Blanchett has ever appeared: She and Rooney Mara are as brilliant as expected in Carol.

The two actresses are deserving of every accolade that's already been bestowed upon them and those that are yet to come. Blanchett is a near-lock for a Best Actress Oscar nomination, and the gold for Best Supporting Actress is as good as Mara's, though she's technically a lead as the movie unfolds predominantly from her character's point of view. (Clearly we're meant to identify mostly with her throughout).

The real standout in Carol, though, is romance. Remember her? In a galaxy long ago and far away, before the age of swiping left/right and rampant NSA, she ruled the hearts of men and women. Romance makes a comeback in Carol, and it's a breathtaking one.

Fairly faithfully based on the Patricia Highsmith novel The Price of Salt, Carol is a love story set mostly in 1950s New York. That means it takes place in a time when you generally first laid eyes on a potential love match not via a phone app but from across a crowded room. Connecting meant closing the space between the two of you, both figuratively and literally. Given that Carol and Therese, the romantic heroines of the film, are both women living in a decade that wasn't particularly hospitable to LGBT, that space is just hurdle number one.

One of the most remarkable things about Carol is how it nails the dynamic of May-September romance without ever lapsing into cliche. Yes, Carol, who is fortyish and unhappily married with a young daughter, and Therese, a twentysomething-ish aspiring photographer paying the bills with a gig working behind the counter at a department store, assume familiar roles.

Sure, the early stages have a familiar ring -- the older and wiser one leads the way. But these aren't tired, predictable archetypes. Carol and Therese may not be peers, but they're equals in the romance. When the hunter gets captured by the game, the reverse happens, too. They're both the trophy and the victor, with so much to gain and to lose. That heightens the romantic stakes and thickens what there is of a plot.

But Carol is not about action. It's more of a character study. As the woman who gives the movie its title, Blanchett balances so many traits it's a wonder that she manages to maintain her poise and composure. She's brittle and haughty, yet fragile and insecure, chilly and remote but warm and tender. There are even hints of girlishness. Blanchett puts her sensuality on full display here (the love scene is as graphic as anything you'll find in a heterosexual romantic drama), and it's clear why Therese falls for her.

It's hard not to think of Katharine Hepburn while watching Blanchett in action. Carol is the kind of role Hepburn would have relished in the 1950s if directors had been making lesbian love stories back then. Director Todd Haynes has so painstakingly re-created the '50s that at times one almost forgets it's a period piece and not an actual film from 60 or so years ago.

Mara has the more difficult role because it's less physical and more internal. She spends a lot of the movie reacting and not appearing to react. So much of her character is revealed through loaded silences. Mara gives a rich, detailed performance that merges the uncertainty of youth with the weariness of being an old soul.

If the movie has one flaw, it's that it's less apparent what Carol sees in Therese other than her beauty. One might presume that part of it is despite her general ride-or-die reaction to Carol, Therese still presents a challenge. In one of the most telling moments in the entire film, Carol makes a throwaway comment about how she's always asking Therese what she's thinking. In that one scene (watch it above), she reveals so much about her character and why she's fallen for Therese.

Carol and Therese don't exist in a vacuum, though that likely still would have made for riveting viewing. While it revolves around the two main characters and their romance, the supporting players aren't merely window dressing.

Kyle Chandler and Sarah Paulson, who play Carol's estranged husband and best friend, respectively, are best known from their TV roles, but both deserve to be more prominent presences in film. Paulson continues to astound with her versatility, and Friday Night Lights Emmy winner Chandler give brutish Harge Aird more layers than the screenplay does. Their characters' interactions with Carol as well as with each other in one tense scene offer hints to a juicy backstory that's probably worthy of a movie of its own.

That said, Carol doesn't really need a sequel or a prequel. It's perfect as is, at 118 minutes. By the time the credits roll, it's done what every great movie is supposed to do. It's left you wanting so much more.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

I'm a little bit country and a little bit rock & roll…so what?

My boss made an interesting observation about me the other week during morning conference. It had absolutely nothing to do with my job performance…unless I missed his point completely.

We were talking about the company Christmas costume party that evening, and he was trying to get everybody into the party mood at 8am.

Now for those who have never lived in Australia, let me explain something about Aussies. They love their themed costume parties, and they take dressing up for them very seriously.

As I confirmed while putting together my latest party get-up, it's easier to find a costume shop in Sydney that will help you transform yourself into pretty much anything from the ankles up than it is to find a shoe store that sells gladiator sandals for men. Go figure.

Costume parties are particularly big here around the holidays. That means the December beach weather that I still can't get accustomed to after eight winter, er, summer seasons in the Southern Hemisphere isn't the only thing that has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas in New York.

I may not be able to adjust to the holiday climate in the South, but I've surprised myself by becoming the guy who always dresses up for a costume party. Back in my New York City days, that guy was never me…and he generally used to get on my last nerve.

I used to insist on going to everything as myself, and all the dress-up people only made me feel more out of place than usual. Maybe that's why I never really got into Halloween. Last October 31, though, I started the day wearing a truly frightening pirate mask, and by the end of the night, the power of make-up had transformed me into a black male Siouxsie Sioux circa "Hong Kong Garden" from the neck up.

The good thing about the costume obsession here is that you can walk through the streets of Sydney dressed as Captain America, or Julius Caesar, and not a single soul will give you the side-eye. They know exactly where you're going. You can also pick up a guy who has no idea what you actually look like until he tracks you down on Facebook the next day.

But getting back to morning conference, for some reason, my boss directed his attention toward me.

"Jeremy, you're coming, right?"

His phrasing suggested that there might be some doubt. Plus he looked slightly concerned, as if he was thinking I was thinking dress-up holiday parties were beneath me.

"Excuse me. Don't you remember last year's Christmas party?" I was overdoing the incredulousness for maximum comic effect.

"I wouldn't miss it. I already have my costume all picked out."

I could tell that Thursday night in mid-December 2014 was starting to come back to him: the dancing, the drinking, the unforgiving Captain America outfit. Of course, I was going to be there…with bells on…possibly literally.

My boss was clearly amused by the memory of me as the Yankee superhero, and he was confused, too.

"You know, Jeremy, you're an interesting set of contradictions. You're kind of shy, but at the same time you're this exhibitionist. There are all of these hidden sides."

Behind my poker face, I was pretty shocked. He was dead-right, but I didn't realize he had even been paying attention over the past 13 months and one week.

The more I think about his spot-on description of me, though, the more I'm not so sure about the "contradictions" part. While I know he wasn't being critical, the word itself has such a negative connotation. It suggests not only inconsistency but perhaps disingenuousness, too. It implies that one oscillates too wildly, never staying still long enough to actually stand for anything.

To be fair, it's a word I've often used to describe myself because it always seemed to fit. I'm uncomfortable in crowds and in social situations that aren't one-on-one, but I can work a room with the best of them. I'm the classic loner, yet to see me working that room, one might assume I'm a social butterfly.

I'm meticulous in the way I present myself (last week, during another offsite event, a colleague commented that I can even making bowling shoes look stylish), yet I've never been particularly crazy about a sharp-dressed man.

I'm driven by wanderlust (they don't call me "the world traveler" for nothing), but in my mind, there's no place like home…on the couch. I shy away from commitment, but I've often been a paragon of stability and longevity (so much so that I remained at my first job out of college for eight years). I have no problem being half-undressed in my gay-app profile pics, but I'm uncomfortable sleeping in the nude.

My music taste is all over the place, but when it's time to eat, I rarely venture outside of a handful of options. My friends can usually guess what I'm going to order off any given menu, but most of them would have a hell of tough time picking out a gift for me that I wouldn't have to pretend to love. I'm predictable and unpredictable like that.

My brother once described me as a "recovering introvert," and I don't think anyone has ever nailed my two-sidedness quite as accurately. He reads me better than anyone I know and has occasionally pointed out things about me that are barely perceptible to the naked eye.

After he read my book, he described it as "sometimes prudish yet sexually manic," perfectly encapsulating both the book and its author.

While I might seem maddeningly contradictory to some, I'm less about contradiction than duality. I like to think of myself as being the embodiment of yin and yang. Why do I have to be just one thing? Why can't I be a little bit country and little bit rock & roll...or New York wine and Tennessee 'shine?

I don't see the various sides of my personality opposing each other, or even contradicting each other, so much as complementing each other. Yes, I'm shy, but I never threaten to fade into the background, and for that I can thank my exhibitionist side. And yes, I appreciate attention, but I'm too timid to really work for it.

My shyness keeps my exhibitionism in check, while my exhibitionism stops my shyness from turning me into wallpaper.

And thank God for that. It was the emergence of my modest streak that kept me from going to this year's Christmas bash as a commando Julius Caesar. The evening was blustery enough that one unexpected gust of wind might have led to the worst wardrobe malfunction ever.

And that's one side of me that the entire world doesn't need to see. My inner exhibitionist might have kind of loved it, but my shy side never would have lived that one down.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Why my interview with Scott Weiland might be my saddest one ever

In my many years as a journalist, I've interviewed several performers who are no longer with us, including Tammy Wynette, George Jones and Barry White.

One late ex-interviewee, Material Issue singer Jim Ellison, committed suicide in 1996 at age 32. Coming four years after I interviewed him for Musician magazine, his truly untimely death was as shocking as it was devastating. His band's sprightly power pop didn't offer as much as a clue to how tortured he must have been. I haven't been able to listen to it in nearly 20 years for fear that I might notice the chilling specter of doom, despair, and agony that I spent years missing entirely.

But since the passing of Tammy Wynette in 1998, the death of no other ex-interviewee has affected me quite as deeply as that of Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland, who died in his sleep of cardiac arrest on December 3.

It's been more than 15 years since I interviewed him for the October 2000 issue of Teen People, but after I read about his death, memories I hadn't recalled in years came rushing back.

Our interview was in a rehearsal space in Burbank, and while I have no recollection of what I wore that day, I can see Scott as clearly as if he was standing in front of me right now in all of his post-grunge rock-star glory.

He was thin, but ripped, and barefoot, wearing jeans and a light blue shirt completely unbuttoned to reveal his smooth, toned upper torso. As he talked, my eyes kept darting down to the treasure trail between his hips and his belly button. I hoped he wouldn't notice me sneaking furtive peeks.

Ten  months sober at the time, his longest period of sobriety since being introduced to heroin six years earlier, Scott spent hours detailing his battle back from the brink -- the drug binges, the arrests, the overdoses. His story sounded like a Less Than Zero outtake, but with a happier ending than the one Robert Downey Jr.'s character had.

Scott was still there, alive, kicking, and excited about living. Clearly the demons remained, but he insisted he had them under control. STP was about to go on tour with Red Hot Chili Peppers, and he talked about bringing a counselor on the road to help keep him on the right path.

He'd just gotten married, and there was a baby on the way. Yes, Scott had been to hell and back, but from where I was sitting, with such a clear view of the grunge god I'd adored from afar since the mid-'90s, it didn't seem too bad to be him.

As I listened to him talk about his past, I wondered about his future. I'd dated addicts, one of whom I broke up with because of his dependency. He ended up in rehab after we split, so I'd had a close-up glimpse of addiction. I wasn't deluded by any illusions: It's not a fight that anyone ever wins. You just have to learn to live with it.

Scott talked about how he gave up one addiction for another, and I left with the cigarette stench to prove it. But better smokes than heroin, I figured. I didn't mind smelling like an ashtray if it meant Scott got to live.

And for one and a half decades he did. I'd kind of lost track of Scott in recent years, but I knew his life since our interview hadn't always been easy. When a rocker dies under 50, your mind immediately thinks the worst, especially when the rock star has waged a well-documented war with substance abuse.

Here's what we know for sure: Scott died in his sleep of cardiac arrest. Some sources claim he'd relapsed in recent weeks, but his widow insists he was clean and sober at the time of his death. (Scott had divorced Mary Forsberg, his wife at the time of our interview, and married his third wife, Jamie Wachtel, in 2013.)

If he was indeed clean and sober (and Mary's post-mortem Rolling Stone essay suggests that definitely was not the case), maybe his body belatedly reached its breaking point, having been previously abused for so many years. If Scott at 48 thought anything like how he thought when I interviewed him at 33, he didn't want to go.

Toward the end of our chat, I offered my theory that creative people are driven by a profound sadness, and he nodded in agreement.

"I think that early insecurity led to my pursuit of fame," he said. "Any person with a desire to be validated and loved by millions of people doesn't really feel comfortable in his own skin. I definitely fall into that category. I searched for validation through a lot of other ways, latching onto anything -- pot, alcohol, women -- trying to fill that void, and all it seemed to do was breed a lot of loneliness."

He ended our chat with what might have been his most telling and revealing words of the entire interview.

"I think a lot of successful artists had feelings similar to mine while growing up. when they came across a seemingly cure-all chemical, they latched onto it just as I did. A lot of those people were ultimately destroyed. Look at Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison. For whatever reason, God wants me here for some purpose. Living is really an amazing experience. I feel pretty lucky."

My favorite STP song that isn't "Interstate Love Song"