Friday, September 23, 2016

On Leaving the Creative Professions

Parting Glances (Bill Sherwood, 1986) is my favorite movie of the 1980s. It's one of the few contemporary works of art about AIDS that avoids melodrama, apocalyptic anxiety, piety, or brutality. The movie is a collection of vignettes, house parties, dinner parties, bitchy phone conversations. It's one of Steve Buscemi's first movies. He exercises enormous restraint as a rock star dying of the disease. He's depressed, but not hopelessly so. The movie also features Kathy Kinney, who would go on to play Mimi on The Drew Carey Show (1995-2004). Kinney naturally works against the fag-hag stereotype. She is gentle, relaxed, and confident. She doesn't surround herself with gay men out of desperation, but genuine affection. A young man named Adam Nathan plays a cute twink who spends most of the movie dead silent in the background, casually navigating this gay world. In the middle of the movie, almost out of nowhere, he reveals himself to be a human being. Buscemi sits morose in a stairwell. Nathan delivers a monologue, all bravado, bragging about coming out at 16, not giving a damn about what anyone thought of him, and confessing his crush on Buscemi's best friend who is just so "cool," a description neither Buscemi's character nor any member of the audience would ever use. Adam Nathan is fantastic. He sells Parting Glances the way Alec Baldwin sells Glengarry Glen Ross (James Foley, 1992). He is what you wish you could be, know you will never be, and know that it's probably a good thing that you will never be. His monologue defines the stakes. In Parting Glances, everyone wishes they could live not so much longer as younger, like this kid who seems convinced he will never die.

So who is Adam Nathan and what happened to him? I looked him up on IMDB. He has three other acting credits, one in Michael Jackson's "Bad" music video. So as far as I'm concerned he is part of two of the greatest American movies of the 1980s. "Did he die of AIDS? Please tell me no." So I look him up through LinkedIn and find out that Adam Nathan actually has his own website, dedicated to talking about his family, his hobbies, and his career. He went to Columbia, where he graduated with a BA in Russian Language and Literature. He went to Tisch in the early '90s. He hiked in Nepal. And now he's married (to a woman, he's straight), has two kids, lives in the Seattle-area and works in IT. I emailed him a couple of years ago and asked if he'd agree to be profiled for a story. I wanted to write a long personal essay about Parting Glances, using what looked like his intriguing life story, the outline of which he has made public information, as a through-line. He was very kind and he turned me down. 

A couple of weeks ago, I watched a terrible, dated gay movie, Get Real (Simon Shore, 1998). It's a dull, obvious coming out tale that stars another one-time twink, a cute skinny kid named Ben Silverstone, who was 18 or 19 at the time of filming. The other actors in Get Real are hacks and the script doesn't allow anyone to breath. The closeted athlete is not much more than a closeted athlete. The anti-gay bullies are just violent psychopaths. But Silverstone is awesome, quick with a subtle one-liner. He takes pleasure in recognizing everyone else's bullshit. Okay, so what happened to Ben Silverstone? Well I go on IMDB. His last significant acting role is nearly 10 years old in an ill-received movie in which he co-starred with Patrick Swayze. Before Get Real, he appeared in remakes of The Browning Version (Mike Figgis, 1994) and Lolita (Adrian Lyne, 1997). In the latter, he played a young Humbert Humbert, which means that at some point I will have to watch that movie. He also appeared on stage, won some awards, but he retired from acting in the late 2000s and became a barrister, specializing in human rights law. 

There are many reasons people leave the creative professions. The creative professions are generally not lucrative. They are not meritocracies. Mediocrities often rise to the top, due to the capriciousness of the market, of what people in power think is worthwhile. There are hard-working boring grinds like Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon who make it big in comedy, and geniuses like Lewis Black who didn't have much of a career until he hit his 50s. Two of my smartest colleagues from the University of Iowa, where I did my MA, dropped out of the program, one after three years, the other when he was well into the dissertation phase. I'm sure there were many Aretha Franklins and Sam Cookes who never felt the need to leave their churches for a recording studio, or who were discouraged from doing so due to the racism of the music industry.

But there are other reasons. Our culture may elevate certain forms of creativity, but there are, in fact, many forms of creativity. Silverstone is probably a brilliant barrister and he's practicing an area of law that I imagine offers a lot of intellectual stimulation. Those outside of IT probably don't understand the fun a 9-5 IT job may offer. People who have never stood in front of a classroom will never understand that teaching is more of a craft than a science. Movie acting, writing, stand-up comedy and the rest are not the only ways to share something great with the world. 

Still, there is something offensive about the decisions of young, beautiful, talented men like Nathan and Silverstone to leave acting. The creative professions involve a way of being that stretches from childhood into old age. Actors can but often don't start acting when they're in college. They start in their kindergarten Christmas plays. Forty-year-old novelists once wrote fairy tales for their third grade teachers. Academics are eternal students, surrounded by mentors, in one way or another, until the last few years before their retirement. When someone leaves a creative profession, they are making peace with their age. They are walking away from youth. 

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