Summer thoughts, autumnal realities

Time marches on. Seasons change. Glossy magazines bring out fall preview issues. Reruns of last season's hits become studded with promos for new shows that look eerily like last season's hits, with a slightly younger cast.

Yes, fall is upon us, but until very recently I wasn't feeling particularly autumnal - summer was going to have to wrest its way kicking and screaming out of my clutches. I'm not quite sure why. Maybe it's because I haven't yet consumed my quota of summer-related entertainment: the new Harry Potter book is still waiting to be read, and "The Dukes of Hazzard," for the time being, remains just a television show for me, not an opportunity for evaluating Jessica Simpson on her 'acting' merits.

Maybe it was a recent trip to Los Angeles, where lots of people spend lots of time keeping it unreal, lost in what the Beach Boys used to call "endless summer." I don't think it's only because the weather's so good all the time (though I'm sure that doesn't hurt); in an industry town where your business is fantasy, who wants to let reality horn in and spoil all the fun?

At least, that's what I learned from watching this season's episodes of "Entourage" (the story of a 'star,' Vince Chase, and his entourage of friends from his home town, thus the title) and "The Comeback" (the story of a star past her prime who struggles with the realities of Hollywood) on HBO. Vince's boys, on the former, are swept up in a haze of reflected stardom and everything that comes with it, even though the quartet's dazzling good fortune is based largely on fantasy. This is true even by Hollywood standards - the entire second season so far is based on the big success Vince will have if he makes a movie that, over the course of many episodes, hasn't yet even begun to film.

This emphasis on the celebration of a glorious present based on an uncertain future is one of the canniest decisions the writers and producers of "Entourage" have made; the other is to almost never show Vince actually acting, since his talent (or, perhaps, the lack of it) isn't really the point.

On "The Comeback", Lisa Kudrow's simultaneously exasperating and mesmerizing performance (if there is such a thing as a mannered caricature, "Valerie Cherish" is it) is of an actress who has built walls of fantasy to protect her from the hard truths of a hard business, truths that Vincent Chase and his buddies seem not yet to have learned. (And may never learn in quite the same way: one of those hard truths is that the business chews up and spits out women in a way very different than it does men.)

But even though Kudrow's performance allows us to see precisely how much effort Valerie Cherish puts into building those walls - and how easily they are knocked down, if only momentarily - it's fantasy that keeps her going. And though I haven't seen the end of the season yet, it may still be that despite her inanities, her self-centeredness, her questionable acting ability, and yes, her age, "The Comeback's" writers and producers might well let her pull off her comeback - after all, it's hard to get between an audience and their happy ending, even on HBO.

But when we get to late August in the real world, we have to ask ourselves how much of summer is too much. These autumnal thoughts came after watching a late night showing of "Mad Hot Ballroom," where the most adorable children you ever saw, almost all from underprivileged families, learn to dance the meringue, salsa, rumba, and more in their public schools in New York City, generating tears from their teachers, delight from their audience, and praise for their documentarians.

"Mad Hot Ballroom" is unquestionably fun to watch; I defy anyone with a heart not to feel along with these kids as they win, and lose, their dance competitions. And I think it's great that the schools teach children to ballroom dance, I really do.

But I'm not sure that the theory the film seems to give a lot of time to - that teaching the kids ballroom dancing skills will change their lives and transform them from at-risk youth into disciplined, well-behaved young men and women - doesn't have more of the Hollywood whiff of "Lean on Me" rather than of real life. To be fair, a number of the teachers interviewed are agnostic or even a bit skeptical about the program's long-term effects, and the filmmakers should be commended for including these points of view; still, you're left with the whiff of wishful thinking wafting over the closing credits.

This should not be taken as assignment of blame, either of the filmmakers and certainly of the incredibly hard-working, dedicated, and caring teachers who populate the documentary; they seem to be doing quite a lot with very little. But wishful thinking can be a dangerous thing, and too much summer can be equally dangerous in the real world.

Think, for example, of our president, who has been taking quite a bit of summer vacation recently (although Katrina has brought him back to work) and has perhaps imbibed a bit too much of the summer spirit himself. He, like the boys in "Entourage", has celebrated victory based on something that has yet to happen; like Valerie Cherish, is able, at least in public, to put aside the facts in favor of assertions, which themselves are often easily contradicted or at least revealed as wishful thinking; and like the filmmakers of "Mad Hot Ballroom", may wish to celebrate feel-good pictures and stories, and avoid the complexities that may lead to problems down the road.

Summer is where he is, and summer is where he'd like to remain; no one can blame him for that natural instinct, but, like the rest of us, he has to face the coming of fall.

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