Tuesday, April 10, 2012

"Painting The House"

Consider this story:

Two people meet, and they take an instant hate to each other. In time, their relationship warms up, and they decide to get together. In the end, they realize that whatever made them hate each other in the first place is stronger than what brought them together, and they decide to split up.

That’s a story. And it’s not an overwhelming “reach.” It’s the story of every relationship that didn’t work out. So it happens. Arguably, more often than its opposite: two people take an instant hate to each other, there’s some cathartic breakthrough, and they end up getting married, or whatever (the issue(s) that originally made them hate each other melting entirely away.)

(By the way, this isn’t just a “relationship” scenario. The first version happened to me more often than I care to remember in the work context. Though they generally liked my series “pitch”, a network retained some “concerns.” The network ultimately committed to a pilot script, and finally, they “passed” on the project, on the basis of the same “concerns” they had voiced in the first place! The lesson I learned was that what they tell at the beginning is what they tell at the end. And you should never be fooled by the middle.)

I was thinking about this today, when I read a review for an Italian movie about an unhappily man who decides to become unfaithful. In the American version of this movie, the husband and wife would re-discover their love for each other, and they’d live happily ever after.

A more mature though less likely possibility would be a movie where the man finds someone terrific, ends his unhappy marriage, and they live happily ever after.

Least likely of all is a movie where in the end, nothing works out, and what we are treated to is the “journey” of an ordinary man, living a less than perfect life.

If, as the saying goes, most of us live lives of quiet desperation, the third version of the story is considerably more likely than the other two. And yet, no major studio would ever make such a movie, and if it were done independently, it would be virtually impossible to raise the money.

“I don’t invest in ‘downer’ pictures.”

“But it more accurately mirrors life.”

“Movies give you what life doesn’t.”

“You’re saying that it’s entertaining to see a movie about what you’re not getting in your actual life?”

“That’s exactly what I’m saying.”

“That’s fun? Your nose pressed to a restaurant window, watching other people eat? I don’t get it!”

I’m with that guy. And other countries are too. I remember a lovely movie about a woman, living a drab and unrewarding life, who contracts some illness, like TB, or something. Living in a Socialist-type nation, she is sent free-of-charge to some a kind of a rest camp in the country, where she finds satisfying activities and congenial company. The woman blossoms spiritually and emotionally from her experience.

And in the end she goes home.

That’s the arc of the story. “Drab life. Temporary salvation. Drab life.” And you, meaning me in the audience, did not feel let down. The movie reflected the reality of life. Anything else would have been dishonest. It’s actually an uplifting story. A lot cheerier than “Drab life. Drab life. And drab life.” That would be a terrible movie. And an even more terrible life.

In America, we don’t go in for partial victories. Historically, the American mythology is about winners. We blasted our way through the Rockies and built the transcontinental railroad. There was no, “Man, the Rockies are really hard to blast through. I mean, nobody thought we’d get this far. I say we congratulate ourselves, give up.”

That did not happen. The railroad went all the way through. And with that and other accomplishments, the spirit of triumph seeped into consciousness, informing or storytelling, to the point where, from a commercial standpoint, meaning, the audience demands it, that is the only story that is permissible to tell.

In this Free Speech Nation, exempt from censorship or government-mandated culture-myths, when we can do virtually anything we want, we continue to get are repetitions of exactly the same story.

The story where everything works out.

All that is then left for the screenwriter is to come up with fresher, more artful renditions of a story the audience has already seen. That challenge never seemed all that inspiring to me, at least not enough to overcome my natural fear of rejection and take a shot because the ultimate product seemed worth the effort.

Meaning no disrespect to housepainters, but writing a script, bound by highly constricted parameters as to subject matter, tone, and, especially, story trajectory, seems a lot like paining a house. You’re a skillful practitioner. You are careful with your brushwork, cover all the nooks and crannies, you make sure the colors don’t bleed into each other, and you tidy up the drips. You climb down from the ladder, you stand back, and you take a look.

“Okay. A professional, workmanlike job.”

Commendable. But what did you actually do? You in no way altered the house. You just gave in a fresh coat of paint.

I don’t know what story I would tell if there were no limits on the stories I could tell. I am fully aware of “what they want.” And it’s already been done. And done. And done. And done.

Doing it yet again?

I don’t see the point.


Zaraya said...

Dear Mr. Pomerantz; you write something that subverts and inverts all the cliches. Something so wickedly nasty to how movies are made that it just has to be made by an independent studio so they can show how avant-garde they are. Did "War of the Roses" already cover that territory?


Thomas said...

Brilliant post.

I try to write with a couple of rules:
1) No-one learns any grand lesson.
2) Not every thread should be neatly, happily resolved.

I am still young, but if I can keep those rules throughout my career I will be proud of my work.

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