Thursday, January 20, 2011

"Closing Time - The Wrap-Up"

When people say that a writer who was once King of the Cowboys but whose popularity has since waned has “lost it”, they are totally – and diametrically

Wrong.

They haven’t lost it.  They have exactly what they’ve always had.  The problem is… 

Nobody wants it anymore.

The vast majority of writers – I won’t say “all”, because there are always exceptions – can only write one way.  That’s their “voice.”  That’s who they are.  The equation here is simple.  If how you write is in sync with the times – cha-ching, cha-ching.  The times change, as they inevitably do, and suddenly, it’s “No Sale.” 

That’s just the way it is.  The thing that made you is invariably the thing that does you in.

Here’s a “Duh!” observation:  Nobody wants to leave the game.  The money, the power, the attention, including from members of the opposite gender who would otherwise not give you the time of day – these perks are terribly difficult to give up. 

There’s also the excitement of working at the top of your creative powers, and then suddenly, you’re out, and the highlight of your day is going to the store to buy light bulbs.

You definitely want to stick around.  But how do you do it?  Well, if you can’t change the product – because the product is you – your only alternative is to alter the packaging.

The central plot of Jim Brooks’s successful Broadcast News concerned a woman, struggling to choose between two men.  In How Do You Know, it’s the same story.  One might question the value of doing the same story twice, but there’s nothing dated about the idea.  “Triangles” are timeless.

The new wrinkle How Do You Know provides is that, this time…

The characters are younger. 

The Reese Witherspoon character is thirty-one, the two guy characters, early thirties.  It’s perfect.  We’re a stone’s throw from “Apatow Country.”  We’re still in the game!

No. 

Why?

Because, though these characters may look young and dress young, they don’t talk young or act young.

As I mentioned two postings ago, Jim Brooks’s signature writing style features a laser-like insight into character.  Achieving this level of awareness requires a devoted commitment to self-examination.  It’s like you’re continually taking your emotional temperature.

In How Do You Know, this self-reflecting posture results in a running commentary by the characters, a sort of play-by-play of their own behavior, producing lines line, “Good phone call!” and “I really need you to be aware of how confidently I’m behaving.”  (The latter quote is a paraphrase.  I do not have access to the script.)

This “personal drama” mindset emanates from the heyday of psychotherapy, or, as my therapist wife would call it, bad psychotherapy.  This dissecting-of-the-moment behavior, never wildly popular at any time – it annoyed the people you were talking to – had its moment during what they called “The Human Potential Movement” of the late sixties and seventies

The problem as far as How Do You Know is concerned is that this mindset is not popular today.

Compounding his characters’ jarring throwback behavior is the fact that Jim Brooks has chosen to make two of the characters in How Do You Know

Athletes.

Notice the difference here.  Broadcast News – journalists.  Thinking people.  For whom a proclivity towards intellectualizing would hardly be out of line.

Athletes, on the other hand, are reacting people.  See the ball – hit the ball.  If athletes continually stopped to “examine the moment” – “Wouldn’t it be great if I hit a home run right now?” – the ball would be past them, and they would quickly be back on the bench.  And subsequently, fired.

Jim Brooks takes his young athlete characters and makes them talk, think, feel and behave like broadcast journalists a decade or more older. 

It doesn’t fit. 

What you end up with are counterfeit characters, facing the same ignominious fate as the World War II German infiltrators who mistakenly identified “The Bambino” as Lou Gehrig.

Busted.

Is there a way for a writer to remain true to their natural, creative sensibility?  Well, you can go to the studio and say,

“I’d like to write a movie involving characters that are closer to my age.”

“How old are you?”

“I’m seventy.”

To which the studio will politely respond:

“Please don’t.”

And therein lies the dilemma.  You have two choices:  You can write something you can’t do.  Or you can write something you can’t sell.

There is, of course, a third choice.  The choice reflected in my title for the last three posts:

“Closing Time.”

You can shut the thing down.

And, I don’t know, maybe write a blog. 

3 comments:

joe said...

I'm curious about something. Well, I'm curious about lots of things, but I'll limit myself to one question, with maybe a half-question followup.

Is a writer's "voice" (in your opinion) something he acquires by training or is it something innate? Who, in your opinion, are the writers who write (and by that I mean write well in more than one voice?

I'll hang up now and take my answer on-the-air.

Alan said...

The issue is not that they are too old for the entire market.
The writer is too old for the market that the studio guys want to sell to.
Kings Speech is also too old for that market…as is True Grit and yes, The Social Network. And those movies are killing!!!... although I’m sure they were told that they were too old!
Mike Leigh’s movies… Too old!
It seems to me that the studio guys who are the gatekeepers have lost track of the audience they’re aiming at. The blockbusters…and the stoopid comedies they’re turning out are tanking…
But it is the studio guys who both control entry to the playpen, and maybe, THEY'RE too old…or just not smart enough.

Max Clarke said...

Why is it the great ones don't know when to leave?

That's a quote from an episode of Cheers, spoken by Frasier Crane. Sam is trying to pick up a woman, maybe it was a date with Rebecca.

Age wouldn't be the issue if the latest Jim Brooks movie had done well. Most people don't go to the movies because it was directed by anybody. They want great scenes and great lines they'll use later. They want a sense of connection with the characters and the story.

If Jim Brooks can make a movie with those qualities, he'll be back.

Woody Allen has survived somehow. What he spends on his movie is what a major studio spends on a single actor. He has essentially no promotion, just his reputation and the stars he's able to hire, and the stories.

And look at Sidney Lumet, the man was born in 1924 and he makes Before The Devil Knows You're Dead a couple of years ago.

I don't know what it's like to be a Jim Brooks, but he's far from finished, and I look forward to his next movie.