A couple of weeks ago, we attended an evening featuring writer Judith Viorst, who, among other books, wrote the children’s classic, Alexander And The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Viorst, now hitting eighty, was asked about her process. Paraphrasing, she said when an idea came to her she believed would make a good book, she wrote it.
Tuesday, November 30, 2010
A couple of weeks ago, we attended an evening featuring writer Judith Viorst, who, among other books, wrote the children’s classic, Alexander And The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Viorst, now hitting eighty, was asked about her process. Paraphrasing, she said when an idea came to her she believed would make a good book, she wrote it.
Monday, November 29, 2010
Friday, November 26, 2010
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
Tuesday, November 23, 2010
Here’s the essence of Arthur.
Arthur Bach, the scion of a wealthy family, is an irresponsible, tipsy playboy. Arthur is immature, he’s generous, he laughs a lot, especially at his own it’s-funny-when-you’ve-had-a-few observations. Arthur also takes a perverse pleasure in flaunting convention, inviting hookers to dinner at upscale eateries.
Arthur’s family wants him to grow up, the symbolic gesture of this ascension to adulthood – an arranged marriage to a female scion on another wealthy family. Though Arthur agrees to the marriage, he subsequently catches sight of an offbeat working class girl while she’s shoplifting a tie from a department store, and is immediately smitten.
The movie hinges on whether Arthur will surrender to his love for this proletarian nobody, or do the “adult thing” and marry within his class. The jeopardy is, if he refuses to do the latter, Arthur’s moneyed grandmother will cut him off, and Arthur will wind up with nothing.
Arthur is a throwback to the classic screwball comedies of the 1930’s. My Man Godfrey (1936) did the same story backwards – a freethinking rich girl falls for her butler. (Though he later turns out to be rich as well. I hated that part.)
I can enjoy multiple viewings of Arthur because, although the situation is not inspired – in fact, in keeping with the genre, it’s transparently contrived – the astonishing inventiveness of the joke writing by the movie’s writer-director, Steve Gordon is. It is there that I find the aforementioned (two posts ago) “comic inspiration”, the element that, for me, keeps certain comedies from ever getting old.
One memorable example out of many:
After Arthur invites Linda (the shoplifter girl) out, Arthur’s butler/slash/caretaker/slash surrogate father, gives the girl some fashion advice concerning their upcoming excursion:
“Steal something casual.”
Aside from the original joke writing, Arthur also provides three first-class performances – Dudley Moore, as Arthur, Sir John Gielgud, who won the “Best Supporting Actor” Oscar as Hobson, the butler/slash/other stuff, and Liza Minnelli, who – though I never liked her in anything else except a movie called Charlie Bubbles, is a revelation of casting perfection.
Two things make Arthur one of my all-time favorites: The original joke writing and three sparkling performances. No, wait, there are three things: The original joke writing, three sparkling performances, and the film’s ineffable, almost fairytale-like sweetness.
(Note: Writers use the word “ineffable”, when they lack the chops to make what they’re trying to describe effable. I apologize for the limitation. The movie deserves better.)
I have recently learned that they’re doing a remake of Arthur, starring Russell Brand, from Forgetting Sarah Marshall (where I found to be him refreshingly charming) and Get Him To The Greek (where I didn’t.) I am not happy when they remake movies I like. And this one seems particularly problematic.
These are the primary pillars on which the original Arthur is based. To which I then query, “If you’re uncomfortable with the primary pillar on which the original movie is founded, what is your reason for doing a remake?”
The most difficult problem in the remaking, however, was observed by my daughter Anna, who also loves Arthur. (The Court Jester is one of her favorites as well. I have had my influences.)I will herein paraphrase Anna’s concern, (which is also mine, but she beat me to the words.) When the original Arthur was made, “growing up” was obligatory. Today, it’s an option.
In earlier times, maturity was the price one paid for being taken seriously and accepted into the adult society. Now, there are kid billionaires inventing Facebook and Jackass-3D is killing at the box office.
If you score big in the bucks department, adult society will now take you exactly as you are. In fact, there may not be any adult society anymore. Have you noticed everybody dressing like teenagers?
The problem then is, how you make (or remake) a movie about growing up in an era where that concept is no longer meaningful?
Best of luck, fellahs.
There is one thing in Arthur that’s disappointing to me, but I will talk about that tomorrow. Today, check out some of the good stuff.
Monday, November 22, 2010
Today, it’s the movies.
Still sticking with comedies. I wrote elsewhere about my near addiction to courtroom dramas. Can you have a “near addiction”?
“I want it so bad. But not so, so bad!”
Maybe a near addiction means you directed the needle towards your arm, but you missed, and you stuck a nearby pillow instead.
I believe I have seriously exceeded my area of expertise.
When I talk about movies, a disclaimer is always necessary, or at least I think it is, so here it comes. Though I tried writing movie scripts on several occasions, I was never successful, unless by “successful” you mean I completed writing the script. I did. But in no cases were there any takers.
As a result, when I say that there are few comedy movies I ever really liked, it would be advisable to take that with a grain of sour grapes. If there is such a thing.
As with Raymond and Friends from the television arena, there are comedy feature films that I enjoyed the first time, but am not crazy about ever seeing again. One of them is The Graduate, which was groundbreaking at the time, as when an adult friend of the family points the aimless college graduate in the career direction of “Plastics.” Today, The Graduate seems to me forced and steeped-in-sixties-angst dated.
Tootsie, with the exception of a single scene, also fits the bill of “Thanks, but once was enough.” The movie feels like it’s trying too hard, with the comedy, as well as the feminist message of “Only by being a woman, can a man be truly a man.” I think I’ll just let that stand.
The wonderful single scene exception, that I can watch again and again? I believe I’ve mentioned it before. The Charles Durning character is smitten with “Dorothy Michaels”, who’s really Michael Dorsey, to the point of his proposing marriage to “her.” When it all blows up, Michael (Dustin Hoffman) is obligated to return the ring. The inspired moment occurs when the Durning character spots Michael Dorsey, and realizes, to his embarrassment and rapidly rising rage, that the gentleman he is looking at is “Dorothy.” When I first saw this, the intensifying look of recognition on Durning’s face caused me to laugh myself into a coughing fit.
Butch Cassidy is a “tweener.” I delight in re-watching parts of it, but not the whole thing. As a westerns fan, I am eternally tickled by writer William Goldman’s parodying classic western movie moments, like when Butch attempts to scatter some horses tied up at a hitching post, and the horses, unlike in every western I have ever seen, just stand there. My problem with the movie is the obligatory late-sixties gore-fest. Everybody dies bloody.
The Three Amigos is also a “tweener”, not because there’s violence, but because portions of it are drawn out, and in some places, the comedy falls flat. But when Steve Martin, standing on the Paramount Studios wall, tries to draw the attention of his fellow Amigos with “bird signals” that the Amigos mistake for bird noises, I am totally, and repeatedly, on board.
This brings me to my oft-mentioned all-time favorite movie comedy, The Court Jester.
The Court Jester is replete – I tell you – with comic invention. There are multiple mistaken identities and storyline shifts, secret whistles, witty songs, a rescuing battalion of Little People, a “purple pimpernel on the royal posterior”, a hypnotizing enchantress who, with the snap of a finger can turn a hapless fumbler into a dashing lothario and swordsman.
And, of course, there’s this, “this” being the scene I am about to show you. Though the star, Danny Kaye, takes things a little too far, the verbal gymnastics of “The Vessel with the Pestle”, combined with the physical comedy of a magnetized suit of armor, gives you an imcomparable overlay of two types of comedy, both happening at the same time.
Tomorrow, another funny movie I’d be willing to watch more than once. And they’re doing a remake of it. Though I really wish they wouldn’t.
The trouble is, they never ask my advice.
Enjoy The Court Jester. It's dressed silly, but it’s smart. And, for me at least, it successfully endures the test of time.
Friday, November 19, 2010
Every week, I’d watch Everybody Loves Raymond and Friends. They both made me laugh, and, in different ways, satisfied my requirements. That sounds a little risqué. Let’s say they satisfied my entertainment requirements. That isn’t much better. I just liked them, okay?
I recall funny and easily identifiable Raymond episodes, most notably the one where Ray and his wife, after returning from a trip, engage in an escalating battle concerning which of them will unpack their suitcase.
I’ve been there. Not about the unpacking, but about which of us would return the suitcase to the storage closet in the basement. The empty bag sat there for days.
And then I lugged it downstairs.
Friends’ appeal for me was the likability of the cast, and the out-of-left-field nature of the jokes, my favorite being, “Let’s go out for Chinese food. Or as they call it in China, food.” I hadn’t the faintest interest in who the father of Rachel’s baby was. I showed up for the laughs.
I watch neither Raymond nor Friends in reruns. I pass them as I “remote-click” around the channels, and I reflexively keep going.
On the other hand, Seinfeld reruns, I can watch forever.
Why do I have a visceral reaction against watching shows I originally enjoyed – I mean, I see them now and I’m physically repelled – and why, as with Seinfeld, and also Monty Python’s Flying Circus, do I welcome their repeat showings with enthusiasm and delight.
“It’s the ‘Limo’ episode!”
“They can’t find their car!”
“It’s the ‘Bubble Boy!’ George is going to say ‘the Moops’!”
“It’s ‘The Show About Nothing!’”
“It’s the “Argument” sketch!”
“It’s ‘The World’s Funniest Joke’! The long version!”
“They’re doing the ‘dead parrot’!”
“It’s ‘The Ministry of Silly Walks!’”
Okay, at this point, I will repudiate the fundamental principle of my entire writing career. A ‘one-eighty’ on my core belief. I am old now. Consistency is out the window.
During an illustrious B+ career as a writer and series creator, I believed, more than anything, in the good, solid, logical, compelling, comedically surprising and believably resolved
The story was key. If a story idea grabbed me, I was off to the races. And while developing that story, I was fiercely committed to tying up all loose ends and inconsistencies – the story had to make sense. Otherwise, it was a balloon with a hole in it. It would not hold water. And it would eventually deflate, if you’re going with the balloon metaphor. Or drown the audience’s interest, if you’re following the ‘water’ analogy. Either way, it’s not a good thing.
I still believe story matters. But with a caveat. It matters, and I still believe it’s essential, the first time around. But when it comes to reruns, I already know the story. For my willingness to commit to a second viewing, and beyond, I need something more.
Repeat enjoyments require an element that goes beyond an engaging storyline, and the (sometimes wearying) emotion of the characters invested in it. That repeat-visit element, it now seems to me, is
You’ve heard the story. It’s exhausting to wade through it again. By contrast, comic inspiration never gets old. And I mean, never.
Case in point:
I Love Lucy
I was never, though there are people I respect who were, a big Lucy fan. I generally found it broad and silly. But when Lucy’s working on an assembly line, and those chocolates keep rolling in on that conveyor belt, and she can’t keep up, and she starts eating the candies and stuffing them in her blouse…
Hilarious in the fifties. Still hilarious today.
And only a devoted Lucy fan could tell you what the story that included that “assembly line” scene was about.
It doesn’t matter.
The scene is a classic.
As I never tire of saying, though you may be tired of hearing it, comedy is subjective. What’s funny to me may not be funny to you. The same goes for “comedically inspired.”
I know what I think is comedically inspired.
And I tip my hat to it.
Every time I watch.
Thursday, November 18, 2010
Sitting on my desk is a little, tin box, maybe five inches by eight inches, about two or a little more inches high, with forty-five rather than ninety-degree angled corners. The bottom of the box is clear tin, now slightly tarnished. Its sides are painted red. On the cover, is a painted tableau of a Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman, sitting stiffly atop a statuesque to the point of looking stuffed, brown horse, on a promontory overlooking a wide, blue river, surrounded by a burgeoning pine forest, with the majestic Rocky Mountains in the distance.
Whew. Description makes me tired.
The little, tin box held no original contents during my tenure. No shortbread, no lithographed note cards, no sugar-dusted candies. If memory serves – and as I get older it quite often doesn’t – I discovered the box in some antique emporium in the Midwest, during one of our annual visits to Michiana. I was drawn to it, most likely, because of its evocative – to people of my national origin – Mountie tableau. And it was cheap.
I had no idea what I’d do with it, beyond adding it to my office crammed with accumulated chachkees our beleaguered and wonderful housekeeper Connie is obliged to dust.
Since starting this blog, I have taken to writing notes to myself on little scraps of paper – post-it notes and such – cryptic reminders of ideas that have flashed into my mind. With a self-imposed assignment of writing five posts a week, I can ill afford to let even a glimmer of an idea drift away. They are simply too valuable.
The ideas generally arrive while I’m doing other things. As a result, I have strategically positioned little note pads around the house. A thought pops into my head, I jot down the gist of it, and I set the notation on the stairs, to remind me to take it up to my office. The original idea invariably triggers elaborations, which I scribble down on separate pieces of paper, which I then add to the “reminders” already on the stairs.
It is not unusual for me, while watching a ballgame or a rerun of Law & Order, to continually bound up from my reclining position, scribble some notes, hopefully, though not always, legibly and then proceed to the stairs to deposit my latest addendum on top of the rapidly growing stack.
When Dr. M and I are out, I am constantly badgering her for a pen and paper, so I can stenographize my latest inspiration before it flies back where it came from. I never carry a pad of my own. That would be pretentious. Also, tempting the Fates.
The Fates: “Carrying a pad around, huh? No inspirations for him!”
Over the months stretching into years, my desk became the designated receptacle for accumulated post ideas, a mountain of tiny slips of paper, sitting unsteadily on my desk, “unsteadily” meaning the stack kept falling over, the slips of paper fluttering to the floor. One day, my daughter Anna, artistic yet practical, insisted I get more respectably organized. I listen to my daughter.
I rewrote my collected post ideas on a set of three-by-five cards, and I stored them
In my little, tin box.
You see how it all comes together?
Today, that little, tin box is so crammed full, the cover keeps popping off. It is literally overflowing with ideas. Exactly how many ideas? I have never counted.
Now, I would say that eighty-three to eighty-four per cent of the time – don’t hold me to that number, but it’s close – the decision concerning what my next post idea will be generates from the tension of immediate excitement. A new idea pops into my head, and an “Inner Voice” says to me, “Forget the accumulated ideas. That one is tomorrow’s post!” And I dutifully comply. As with my daughter, I invariably obey my “Inner Voice.”
You may not believe this, but I have never written a post that I wasn’t excited about. The ideas that come to me seem right, at least at the time, I can’t wait to see where they take me. There were very few post ideas I abandoned before starting. And none I can think of that I quit on in the middle.
Having acknowledged that over eighty per cent of my blog posts are of the “think – write” variety, I must admit to days when I’m, I don’t want to say floundering, it sounds too desperate, let’s say there are occasions when my mind is momentarily uncluttered by an idea.
At that point of mental unclutteredness, my thoughts inevitably turn to my little, tin box.
But not my fingers. Not quite yet.
At such moments, I am reminded of a memorable scene from maybe the only romantic movie I ever liked, entitled, Two For The Road.
Two For The Road, starring Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn, interweaves a series of holidays in the south of France, which occurred at significant junctures in the couple’s relationship, over twenty or so years. It’s a wonderful movie. Funny and smart.
During an episode involving their penniless days, the couple, hitchhiking in the country, is picked up by this fussy couple traveling with their horrible little boy. At some point, the Monster Child yanks the keys out of the ignition, and tosses them out the window into a field, where some tall stuff is growing.
The couples get out and start looking for the keys, and they can’t find them. The Albert Finney character asks the man, who’s the driver, if he has a spare set of keys. The fussy man, played by William Daniels, who played fussy men his entire career, replies,
“If we use the ‘spare’, then we won’t have a ‘spare.’”
Call me fussy, but that’s how I feel about the contents of my little, tin box.
This morning, I was “this close” to reaching for an idea.
But I wrote this instead.
I still have the “spare.”
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
My TV viewing options are dwindling.
When it came on, I liked The Good Wife. Courtroom drama. My favorite. Then, late in the first season, the leading lady (married) kissed her boss in the law firm (not her husband.)
And I stopped watching.
Regular readers are aware of my disinterest in the personal escapades of real life celebrities. You can imagine, then, my level of enthusiasm for the entanglements of characters who are made up.
So I’m off The Good Wife. It’s back to reruns of Law & Order, which, until they ran out of stories, stuck single-mindedly to the police work and the legal wrangling.
I was an early supporter of The Big Bang Theory, an energetic ensemble comedy, where the characters regularly talked about, I believe it’s physics, and the network didn’t make them stop, for fear of being ahead of the Heartland. And me.
Hardly groundbreaking in its concept – Four Nerds and a Babe – The Big Bang Theory, nonetheless, felt funny, youthfully exuberant, and – on the “coat of paint” level at least – different.
Disappointingly, the series rather rapidly evolved it into “The Sheldon Show”, Sheldon being one of the four formerly co-equal nerds, recently elevated to headlining centrality. With its structural balance out of whack, the series became narrowly focused and boringly repetitive.
So I stopped watching it.
Modern Family? Smart and funny the first season, wins an Emmy for Best Comedy. Second season, it already feels mustily familiar. It’s like a “Benjamin Button” comedy – a promising youngster, looking prematurely old. Though still capable of surprising moments, in their rhythm and storytelling, this year’s Modern Family episodes feel grindingly the same.
I’m getting ready to stop watching it.
“Hey, Smart Guy, if you think you can do better…”
I know, Italics Man. Sniping from the Cheap Seats. Not classy. But maybe that isn’t the point of this post. Maybe that was just the preamble.
My point is more in this direction. There’s a good chance that the things that make these formerly appealing series no longer interesting to me are precisely the things that are growing those series’ audiences. And they are growing. So, for whatever reasons my enthusiasm for those series has waned, I’m wrong. Or at least, as I described in an entirely different context,
I’m right. But for a tiny amount of people.
This possibility does not surprise me. For a person who for decades threw the dice at the table of mainstream entertainment, I have never enjoyed the benefit of a mainstream sensibility. And don’t think for a second that is not a liability.
My first series, I put my money on a comedy western, when there had not been a successful western on the air for over a decade.
It lasted one season.
I advised the Charles brothers, who created Cheers, to focus on the bar stories rather than the relationship between Sam and Diane. I thought they’d be more interesting. Fortunately, the Charles brothers didn’t listen to me.
I once cast an actor as the lead in a series I created, who would have been perfect if the series had been broadcast on the radio. I entirely overlooked the Ted Danson “Watchability Factor.” By the way, I passed on Ted Danson for the starring role in my western.
I talked recently about a show’s recipe, the importance of the right ingredients and their relative proportions. I spoke of this in the context of choices, emanating from the show creator’s natural proclivities.
Today, I’m coming from the other direction. You can put the show together the way you intended to, the components, a resonating expression of precisely what you had in mind.
And the audience can still go,
How does that work? It works like ice cream.
Maple walnut is an entirely viable flavor. There is most likely a tub of it in every ice cream emporium in the country and neighboring Canada. People walk in, they check out the choices. Maple walnut has potentially the same shot at popularity as any other flavor.
But it doesn’t.
Invariably, it’s chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry.
Down in the ratings.
You can confect the most transcendent example of maple walnut the world has ever tasted, propelling maple walnut lovers into paroxysms of ecstasy.
“This is amazing maple walnut!”
It’s a bull’s eye! A revelation! A life-altering, frozen cow-product delight!
For eleven people.
The general public?
Chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry.
If you choose to think along those lines.
But there is nothing you can do about it.
It is simply the way it is.
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Once upon a time, to be in show business, you had to know how to do something.
And by “do something”, I mean more than have the technical ability to show yourself having sex on the Internet.
(Not that I’d be able to do that. Either part of it. I’m just saying it’s not what old show business called “talent.”)
Being in show business once involved showcasing identifiable skills. Skills you learned, practiced and perfected, and if it turned out, you did them as well or better than anybody else, you got a job, performing those skills before an appreciative, and more importantly, money paying audience.
Now let me be clear here, before I go into my dance. It is my belief that, both now and in the past, there are/were more talented people than the system ever unearthed and offered opportunities to. Before the Internet, the situation was exponentially worse. There were a miniscule number of gatekeepers – agents, studios, talent scouts – who, fairly or unfairly, wisely or unwisely, insightfully or ignorantly determined who got their showbiz shot and who did not.
Today, no more gatekeepers. You put your stuff up on YouTube, and off you go. It’s better. More democratic. You don’t have to know someone. You don’t have to “play the game.”
The system is more egalitarian. Everyone gets a chance. Can you still be overlooked? With the volume of content coming at you – of course. But lacking connections and “insider” know-how no longer automatically means “Law school for you.” There are available options.
But today’s post isn’t about opportunity. I’m talking about skills. It is more democratic for more people to have an increased number of available outlets. But it’s a totally different matter to say, “All talents are equally worthy.” And that all of them have an equal right to our attention.
That’s not democracy. That’s Jackass-3D.
Imagine a guy wants to play football in the NFL. Five-foot six, a hundred and thirty pounds, no aptitude for the game. He can’t run, throw, catch passes, kick field goals, punt, tackle or block. He just wants to play NFL football. It looks like fun.
Would anyone say the NFL is undemocratic by denying this bozo a chance? More likely, they’d call it a ridiculous waste of time.
“Give me a tryout.”
Football has specifically defined standards of ability. You meet those standards, you have a chance. You fall unreasonably short, and you don’t. It’s not democracy. It’s meritocracy. Not entirely. I’m sure are were players who were cut who believed they could play, but for the most part, a team wants to win, they take the best players they can get. Meritocracy.
Today’s show business is different. Today, show business has expanded…no. I was going to say show business has expanded the range of what’s considered to be show business, but there’s a sharper way of putting it.
Today, anything that sells tickets is show business. Which includes dog fighting, until they found out where they were doing it, and made them stop.
Sarah Palin is in show business. (What else can she write on her tax form under: Occupation? Politician? Where?) The actors in Celebrity Rehab are in show business. (“We can’t be in show business as actors anymore, so we’ll be in it as people who completely messed up their lives.”)
The ladies hustling crap jewelry on the Home Shopping Network are in show business. The guy who teaches dog owners to make their puppies behave is in show business. The real estate agents who shlep the couple around on HouseHunters is in show business.
Have you seen Locked Up Abroad? Drug smugglers stuck in South American prisons? It’s a show! Those drug smugglers are in show business!
What happened to talent? Call me narrow-minded, but to me, sticking vials of cocaine up your butt is not talent.
Singer. Dancer. Comedian. Acrobat. Juggler. Trapeze artist. Plate spinner.
Okay, “plate spinner.” As an example. You suspend a number of ceramic plates on the tops of narrow, wooden sticks, and get them all spinning at the same time. The greatest practitioners? They’re a marvel to watch.
Can you become a world-class plate-spinner overnight? Of course, not. Plate-spinning training requires a significant investment in time. And plates.
Plate spinning mastery takes years of practice. Can you imagine the thousands of broken plates? How many times the people in the apartment just below them called the police?
“He’s doing it again!”
Can you imagine the perseverance it took?
“How many did you drop today?”
“You’re improving. You used to drop them all.”
How long can you stay with it? No money coming in? The mounting broken plate expenses? The pressure to give it up must be huge.
(SMASHING CROCKERY IN THE BACKGROUND)
“Stop it, Lazlo! Enough with the plates!”
“But I can’t! It’s my dream!”
Then, finally, it all comes together. One day, two days, three days – not a broken plate can be heard. The downstairs neighbors thought they moved away.
Having mastered the basics, it was on to the tricks – his dazzling entrée into big-time entertainment.
His specialty – “The Amazing Body Spin.” Six sticks, balanced on his forehead, his nose, his chin, one raised knee, and both his hands, swiveling plates in the air at the very same time.
It took thirty years. But he had finally perfected his craft.
It was time to go to work.
Unfortunately, by then, show business had radically changed. Nobody wanted plate spinners anymore. They wanted a guy with his pants down, playing Yankee Doodle with his farts.
Monday, November 15, 2010
"Courtroom Dramas - My Next Favorite Kind of Movie, After Westerns, And the Very Best Pirate Pictures"
I once told somebody that I really enjoyed watching courtroom drama movies, and they said, “Maybe you should become a lawyer.” For some reason that pissed me off, and I replied,
“My wife loves Agatha Christie novels, but it doesn’t mean she wants to be a detective.”
Sometimes, I’m a little short with people. Especially when tell me what I should become. Especially especially when, if I had wanted to become a lawyer, I would have remained in law school, instead of quitting after five weeks.
I could never be lawyer. “Lawyer” is a grown-up job, either in that it’s really dry and excruciatingly hair-splitty, or in the fact that, if it’s courtroom lawyering, another person’s fate is resting entirely on your ability to win the case, and what if you don’t?
“I’m sorry we lost. But you still have to pay me.”
I could never say that.
Regular readers know my views on the American legal approach to discovering the truth. I believe the “adversarial system” is a scam, perpetrated on society by persuasive arguers. That’s how persuasive they are.
“We believe justice can best be achieved by the lawyers’ lying their heads off as convincingly as possible. The fact that we ourselves are extremely good at that has no bearing whatsoever on this belief.”
And they won.
Sticking us with a system where the evidence is less important than the comparative abilities of the attorneys. It could have been worse, I suppose. Murder cases could be decided by the opposing attorneys pitching horseshoes. Where’s the dignity in that?
“The defence attorney has a ‘leaner.’ The defendant is free to go.”
And yet, despite my hostility towards the process, I adore courtroom dramas. (Call me intriguingly inconsistent. Please. I like how it sounds.)
I’m clicking through the channels. I see a cowpoke galloping across the plains – I’m hooked. I see puffy-panted “sea wolves” flying in on ropes, their cutlasses clenched tightly between their teeth – hold my calls, I’m busy!
I see a courtroom set pop onto the screen; I am helplessly compelled to watch. Even if the attorney is Cher.
I find myself enthralled by the built-in suspense of a high stakes trial. Not just in movies, in real life too. I surrendered seven months of my life following every twist and turn of the O.J. Simpson trial. When they announced the verdict, I had to mute the TV, I was so wound up. The verdict still elicits a nausea response. And a reinforcement of the belief that the better lawyering team inevitably prevails.
A trial is a gunfight without the bloodshed. Two lawyers face off, and when the dust clears, only one of them’s left standing.
You just hope it’s the Good Guy.
In life, as I’ve whined at least twice in this post, victory in the courtroom regularly goes to the superior arguer, with justice, often, an incredulous bystander. But in movies, however, the screenwriter’s in control. They can make a point about the broken system – “You’re out of order! The whole court out of order!” – or they can send us home happy, secure in the knowledge that, at least for one brief, fictional moment, the “search for truth” has actually won the day.
I probably like that. It takes me back to the fifties westerns, where the Good Guy won, and the Bad Guy got shot in the hand. “You can rest easy, Little Fellah.” – that would be me – “The world is a fair place to inhabit.”
Not that all courtroom dramas end up with the appropriate verdict. In Witness For the Prosecution, a brilliant defense attorney has gotten his client off, only to discover that he’s guilty. Of course, in that one, the exonerated defendant winds us getting stabled to death, so it turns out okay.
In Anatomy of a Murder, the outcome is ambiguous – the defendant is found “Not Guilty”, but it’s ultimately uncertain whether he is. The only certainty is that the defendant skipped town without paying his lawyer.
My all-time courtroom drama favorites: The aforementioned two, plus Inherit the Wind, To Kill A Mockingbird, Compulsion, My Cousin Vinny (for courtroom pyrotechnics, and it’s funny) and 12 Angry Men, which is, more accurately, a jury-room drama. I even liked a courtroom drama that had Vin Diesel in it. Of course, I’m a sucker for these things, so I could be a little off on that one.
I will finish with The Verdict, screenplay by David Mamet, maybe my favorite courtroom movie of all time.
After a whistle-blowing nurse incriminates her surgeon-boss, for forcing her to falsify information which would have made the surgeon culpable for a patient’s death, the judge, biased towards the surgeon, has her testimony stricken from the record on a technicality.
Paul Newman, a down-on-his-luck attorney, representing the deceased patient’s family, his case now in shambles, argues this in his final summation.
This case, they win.
And it really feels good.
(Note: You may have to fiddle with the sound. I found it a little quiet.)
Friday, November 12, 2010
Regular readers will recall my mentioning that from my earliest times, the dream in my head was not to be a writer, but to be a performer. The difference between the two, in my mind, parallels the difference between being a barrister and being a solicitor in the British legal system.
One of them – I believe it’s the solicitor, but it could be the barrister – works with the client, and performs other legal services. But in the actual trial, it’s the barrister – though I may be wrong and it’s the solicitor – who presents the case to the court. In my fantasy, I wanted to be the second one. Whichever one that is.
I wanted to be “out there.” Why? I’d been “out there” in plays at camp, and I found the experience more exhilarating than anything I had ever experienced. (Though I tried hard to experience as little as possible, for fear of injury.) Plus, I was relatively good at performing, “relatively” meaning in the context of a Jewish summer camp in Northern Ontario, rather than, say, Broadway.
Also, my older brother was a performer, and I wanted to be like him. Not that I wanted to duplicate his approach. I didn’t. What I wanted was to be as good a “me” on stage and my brother was a “him.” Or maybe a little better.
(By the way, if you’re interested, there’s a feature article in September 16’s Rolling Stone about Lorne Michaels, in which my brother is mentioned and is presented photographically. The article errs in its chronology, thus distorting, in the minimalizing direction, my brother’s prominence in Mr. Michaels’ career advancement. Inaccurate stories whose facts I am personally aware of lead me to wonder about the accuracy of all stories.)
Anyway, I wanted to be “out there.” A performer, not a writer. (By the way Number Two, this is not the case for all writers. Many, including some of the very best writers I have known, harbor no performing aspirations whatsoever.)
What comes to mind here in the wonderful little movie called Gregory’s Girl, written and directed by Bill Forsyth, who also wrote and directed an even more wonderful, slightly larger movie called Local Hero. Both films are highly recommended. (So, see? I don’t hate everything.)
In Gregory’s Girl, an awkward and socially inept teenaged boy named Gregory has a mad crush a female classmate, who’s quite attractive and really gewd at football. (“Football” meaning soccer. And “gewd” meaning good. It‘s a Scottish movie.)
To make a full-length feature short, at the end of the movie, through the machinations of several gal pals working together, Gregory winds up on a date, not with the girl of his dreams, but a different girl. A girl whose always liked him, and to whom, it turns out, Gregory is more naturally suited.
Though not where he wanted to be, Gregory wound up more importantly, and presumably more rewardingly, where he was meant to be.
I’m tickled by such stories, where people discover they may not be the best judges of their own reality. Though I’m a little less tickled when the story’s about me.
I still want to be “up there.”
I was hoping I could show you a song clip from the Broadway show, Little Me, that would give you a tangible sense of what the “performing feeling” is all about. The only rendition I could find, however, is kind of cheesy. But even so, ignore the lyrics, and focus in on the exuberant, bouncy excitement the song conveys.
That’s what I’m talking about.
And that’s what I wish I’d experienced.
Thursday, November 11, 2010
Early in my career, I would whine about not writing in my own voice. It turns out, this is not really an actual issue. A fact I was reminded about today.
The reminder came in an article I read in the entertainment section of Los Angeles Times. The story was really about something else; it questioned the blending of comedy and sentimentality in the latest crop of network sitcoms, and whether or not it would prove successful. That one is easy. The answer is:
The secret’s entirely in the recipe. Skillfully confected, success is quite possible. See: Modern Family. Unbalance the ingredients, however, and it’s acid with a cherry on top, or it’s Manischewitz wine.
Case closed. Moving on.
What struck me in the article was a quote by a writer named Greg Garcia, who created this season’s Raising Hope, and previously created My Name is Earl (which, I unhappily report, did nothing to enhance the reputation of the people bearing that name.)
Mr. Garcia is quoted as saying,
“I don’t want to do a show that’s just outrageous and funny things and shocking things and at the end of the day, it’s like, ‘Okay, that was funny, but do I want to watch that again?’ It’s important to me to have some heart and emotion to it.”
Lemme go backwards in that statement, starting with
“It’s important to me to have some heart and emotion to it.”
What I say is – and I don’t know Mr. Garcia, but I know me, and in my day, I might have made pronouncements very much along those lines. Hey, I won the Humanitas Prize.
Mr. Garcia opines that it’s important for him to have heart and emotion in his show. But for other writers, it’s equally important not to. To those writers, “heart and emotion” feel jarringly mawkish and finger-down-the-throat.
More significantly, in my view, the question of whether it’s “important” to have certain qualities in your show is seriously beside the point.
If you’re a writer whose inner “You-ness” includes natural elements of heart and emotion, then “heart and emotion” will inevitably appear in your work. (That’s why worrying about your “voice” is ultimately a non-issue.) It cannot be otherwise. You are what you write. And you write who you are.
As Robert Blake said in Baretta,
“That’s the name of that tune!”
Your writing automatically reflects who you are. Which, depending on “who you are”, may be a blessing or a curse.
If “who you are” is an appealing amalgam of components that produce a series that resonates with a reasonably sized audience of the desired demographic, you will end up with a big house.
However, as “Professor” Irwin Corey used to say at the beginning of his act, if your amalgam of components are, in one way or another, grating and unappetizing, that comes out in your work too. And your house is considerably smaller.
The early part of Mr. Garcia’s quote, is simply a repetition of the same idea, but in the negative.
“I don’t want to do a show that’s just outrageous and funny things and shocking things…”
Here’s my position. Just like you can only write the way that you write, you can only do the show you can do. It’s not a question of not wanting to do a different kind of show. That kind of show is very likely not in you.
Now, a change in fashion or economic necessity may require Mr. Garcia to try that kind of show, and as a professional, his effort, I imagine, would not be without merit. But he’d, at best, be mimicking the style of other writers, writers for whom “a show that’s just outrageous and funny things and shocking things” is the kind of show they naturally do.
This leads me to this final question, which I just thought of, and had no idea I’d be considering.
Let me be clear. I’m talking about myself now, not Greg Garcia, who as I mentioned, I do not know, and have no interest in taking on.
The question that goes to the heart of my – and by extension possibly other people’s – credibility, judgment, opinion and taste.
Is everything that comes out of our mouths simply self-serving rationalization? – We like something because we can do it; we don’t like something because we can’t? If that’s the case, why do we even bother opening our mouths? Why not just say,
“I prefer myself to other people”
And leave it at that?
It would be sad it this were true. It would mean thinking is something we imagine we’re doing, when what we’re really saying is,
“I’m me. And being me, this is the only way I can think.”
Which makes it less “thinking” than saying the same thing a thousand different ways.
Hm, he pondered.
It’s interesting, considering where I started, that I ended up in this unexpected place. That could be proof of actual thinking. Or maybe – knowing me – it’s the only place it could have gone.