Friday, November 29, 2013

"A Creative Conundrum"


Don’t you just love those catchy titles?  Who would not be encouraged to think, “Yeah, this doesn’t interest me”, only to later discover – or more likely never discover – that it might have interested you?  I promise to keep it short, in case you were right in the first place.  Give it a shot.  See what you think.

Recently, we saw a Japanese animated feature called The Wind Rises, written and directed by a man who for decades has been the preeminent master of animated moviemaking, Hayao Miyazaki.  We had seen and greatly appreciated other Miyazaki movies in the past, most notably Princess Mononoke (1997), Spirited Away (the Oscar winner for “Best Animated Feature” in 2001), and Howl’s Moving Castle (2004.)  The Wind Rises, Miyazaki announced, would be his last movie before his retirement.

Unlike most animated films and possibly all American ones the animation for which is entirely computerized, in Miyazaki’s movies, every frame is individually hand- drawn, generating an enchanting ethereality unavailable to the more hard-edged but cheaper and faster process.

The result in The Wind Rises is a breathtaking accomplishment.  The jaw-dropping centerpiece of the movie is the gripping depiction of a Japanese earthquake.  I mean, it’s “just drawings”, but it knocks you for a loop. 

But it’s not all swinging for the proverbial fences.  There’s another scene early in the picture, in which a young boy is sleeping on his back, and for a few moments we simply watch his chest rhythmically rise and fall that left me equally enthralled.  How did they do that so smoothly and effortlessly?  How did they make an animated sleeping person appear to be actually breathing?

Unlike most of Miyazaki’s movies, which are entirely fictional and invariably center on younger characters and their often traumatizing imaginings, The Wind Rises chronicles the rise of real-life Japanese aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi.  There is also a substantial hallucinatory component to this movie as well, which opens with a dream (the “sleeping person”, remember?) in which “Young Jiro” encounters his personal hero, the visionary Italian aircraft designer, Gianni Caproni. 

Planting the seed for how he would ultimately view his profession, Caproni tells Jiro in his nighttime reverie,

“Airplanes are not for war or making money.  Airplanes are beautiful dreams.”

Ironically – or some other adverb – Jiro Horikoshi goes on to work at Mitsubishi, where, in the early 1930’s, he helps develop and perfect what would become the Japanese “Zero”, a sleek and superior fighter plane that would be used in the bombing of Pearl Harbor and bedevil the Allies throughout the remainder of World War II.

In the movie, Jiro is portrayed as a dangerous (to the authorities) free thinker, entirely a-political and almost obsessively single-minded.  His view concerning his efforts, expressed by his engineering partner is,

“We are not arms merchants.  We make beautiful airplanes.”

And yet the airplanes they made killed thousands of people.

An echoing sentiment expressed by Miyazaki about The Wind Rises sent a meteor shower of ideas flashing through my brain.  About The Wind Rises, Miyazaki said,

“All I wanted to do was make something beautiful.”

Suddenly, it came clear to me.

As with Jiro who was designing fighter planes and closing his eyes to the consequences, Miyazaki, in this idealized representation of Horikoshi was doing exactly same thing:

A magnificent achievement for a questionable purpose.
 
“I’m not rationalizing evil,” Miyazaki might protest, “I’m making a beautiful movie.”

My research suggests an even deeper motive.  Miyazaki is apparently a passionate and lifelong pacifist.  This suggests that The Wind Rises is actually an argument against Horikoshi’s blinkered perspective rather than an apology for it.

Well, which is it, Miyazaki?  Are you making “beautiful things”?  Or a statement protesting personal irresponsibility?

Who knows?  Maybe Miyasaki believed he was doing both.  But the audience I saw the movie with was demonstrably unequivocal.

When the lights came up and one might have expected enthusiastic applause for such this monumental artistic accomplishment, there was instead throughout the theater

A thunderous silence.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

"Thanksgiving 2013"


This is the only day of the year when I do not have to justify my nap.  Tryptophan, and that’s it.

“The turkey made me do it!”

And that’s a medical book fact!

I love Thanksgiving because there is no shopping for presents.  Although, this year, Chanukah came so early – it actually started last night – it felt suspiciously like there was. 

Apparently, one of the more popular novelty items for this uncharacteristic, holiday “Tag Team” is the “menurkey” – a Chanukah menorah shaped like a turkey.  We didn’t get one, because I am not certain we would ever use it again.  I am not at all knowledgeable about the workings of the (Jewish) “moon calendar.”  I can barely reprogram my clock radio for “Daylight Savings Time.” 

For those who are interested – though it takes place even if you’re not – Canadian Thanksgiving, I believe but am not certain, is celebrated on October the Twelfth, which is also, I believe but am not certain, “Columbus Day.”

Canada has a tough time justifying Thanksgiving, as we have no tradition of pilgrims, or Indians teaching them to grow corn.  We may not even have corn.  And I do not think the Indians taught us to grow wheat.  I am not certain who taught us to grow wheat.  It was possibly the Norwegians.  But I am not sure how you get a holiday out of that.

“Thank you, Bjorn!”

The truth is, when I grew up, I was not aware that Canadians even celebrated Thanksgiving.  The Hebrew Day School I attended was unlikely to acknowledge it.  They were not thrilled about letting us off for Christmas! 

The only reason I ultimately learned about Thanksgiving is because I once went over to comedian Martin Short’s house – I had written a sitcom pilot entitled Meet The Millers, and Marty (as others call him) had arranged for a private reading of the script with himself and Catherine O’Hara.

When I came in, I was informed that preparations were being made for the traditional Canadian Thanksgiving Feast.  (As I did not peek in the oven or check in the pots, I continue to be unaware of what delicacies my Home and Native Land’s Thanksgiving Day Feast includes.)  It was only then that I became aware of when Canadian Thanksgiving takes place.  Or, in fact, that it actually existed.

(One thing you can count on.  No matter how early it falls, it is a virtual certainty that Chanukah and Canadian Thanksgiving will never coincide.)

One thing – a little troubling in nature.  I do not know where I heard this, but I was recently informed that it is only Canadian Jews who are unfamiliar with the existence Canadian Thanksgiving.  I have no idea why that would be.  Unless the main course involves a festive selection of Canadian Thanksgiving Day pork products.  If there’s a Canadian out there – Jew or otherwise – who has the answer to this mystery, I would appreciate it if you could enlighten me on this matter.

Anyway, since I moved here, Thanksgiving shines as one of my favorite holidays.  We have (our happily expanding) family and a rotating cast of invitees over, we eat Dr. M’s exquisitely prepared delicacies, topped off by Anna’s delectable deserts, we watch football games played by teams I don’t care about, and – and Canadian forgive me for mentioning this – sometimes, though it’s the last Thursday in November, we go swimming. 

Followed by the inevitable totally sanctioned snooze on the couch.

Happy Thanksgiving, wherever you are! 

Have a magnificent day for yourselves.

Even if it includes shoveling the sidewalk.  

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

"What A Lot Of It Is All About"


I read this story early in my career and it gave me a foreshadowing shiver.  I may have posted about it years ago, but it is still gnawing at my innards.

Through circuitous connections, a fledgling comedy-writing team procures a meeting with long-time and still beloved comedian Bob Hope, a veteran, popular-with-the-masses joke-spewing machine in continual need of replenished material. 

Selling jokes to Bob Hope would an enhancing feather in their caps, the proverbial “Big Break”, opening doors to further, hopefully more suitable comedy-writing opportunities.  (The writers were, after all, college graduates, and pedestrian “Bob Hope jokes” were not exactly their m├ętier.)

At their first meeting, Hope provided them with generalized areas he wished them to pursue for their freshly minted one-liners and sent them away, the deal being that he would pay for whatever material that he used. 

The fledgling team raced away, nervous but excited, and confident they could handle the job.  I mean, this wasn’t (then comedian) Woody Allen they were writing for.  It was Bob “recycles-leering-jokes-about-Jane Russell-into-leering-jokes-about-Raquel-Welch” Hope.

The two neophyte writers immediately set to work accumulating a series of gags.  Although fully cognizant of Hope’s tone and rhythm, they were eager to expand his boundaries, injecting their own intellect and originality to produce jokes that would not only allow the comedian to score but would reflect how brilliant they were,  rather than just the latest generation of hacks. 

In their minds, they were producing “pure gold.”

Once finished, they submitted their jokes, and began counting their yet-to-be-received remuneration.  Shortly thereafter, they were summoned to Hope’s Toluca Lake mansion, arriving with expansive, anticipatory grins on their faces. 

Let the adulation begin!

“Boy’s it’s not me,” was Hope’s minimalist critique, meaning the jokes they had concocted, although possibly funny, did not suit his longstanding comedic M.O.

Rather than being cut off, however, the writing duo was instructed to try again.

They had aimed too high, they decided.  This time, they would deliberately “dumb down” their one-liners, designing them to be less “clever”, and therefore more in sync with the pedestrian requirements of their employer.  The new jokes would not exactly be stupid – they were incapable of doing that even if they wanted to – simply more accessible to Bob Hope’s mainstream audience. 

Less “haute cuisine”, more Burger King.

“Missed again, boys” was Hope’s evaluation of their second submission.  Since he was not required to pay them for material he didn’t use, having nothing to lose and probably thinking he was doing them a favor, Hope dispatched the duo again, to see if they’d have better luck hitting the target on the third go-round. 

The young writers were furious.  They had demeaned themselves, not to mention wasted precious writing time, toiling for a comedian they did not even respect.  Frustrated and upset – and also convinced they would never be able to succeed at this enterprise anyway – the aspiring comedy writers lost their minds and proceeded to produce – mostly for their own satisfaction – a vicious parody of what they perceived as the “Bob Hope Comedic Genre”:  Simple-minded.  Obvious.  Insulting to anyone with a brain.  And exaggerated in the extreme.

By now, they did not care about the job or the out-of-touch Bob Hope thought of them, or even how this prank might damage their yet to get started careers. 

They just simply wanted their revenge.

The material was submitted and they awaited the response. 

Finally, they were summoned to Hope’s big house for what they were certain they would be a tongue-lashing and a dismissal.  The comedian sauntered into the room, and uttered a terse, “says all that needs to be said” reaction:

“Bulls-Eye!”

Lessons Learned?

Comedy writing is harder than it looks.

There is no place for snobbery in show business.

You do what your boss wants or you don’t get paid.

You may think you know what you’re doing but a surprising amount of the time you don’t.

You finally find their “voice”, but it costs of your own.

“Is this really what I want to do for the rest of my life?”

And…

“Do you realize this is actually a good job?”

The answer is:

“All of the Above.”

And if you master that terrain, you’ll make a comfortable living as a comedy writer.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

"Professional Services"


They asked me to read their screenplay.

And I said okay.

I said “Yes”, not because I liked them, which I unqualifiedly do.  The fact is, however, is that in my entire history of “Would you read my screenplay?” requests, I do not recall saying no to any of them.  Whether I liked the requester or I didn’t, especially when I didn’t, because turning them down put me in fear of the discomfiting follow-up:

“Why not?  Don’t you like me?”

Cowardly as that behavior admittedly is, I would rather read ten screenplays than open up that poisonous can of worms.  How long would it be before I heard the dreaded and the opposite of anticipated,

“Well I don’t like you either!”

“Then why did you ask me to read your screenplay?”

“I respect you as a writer.  But as a person, I have always hated you.”

So I read their screenplay. 

To avoid the unpleasantness.

But like them or hate them, having said “Yes”, an unasked-for burden inevitably begins.  The nature of that burden? 

A person is standing naked in front of you.

“I want you to be totally honest.  What do you think?”

What do I need that for?  Even if it’s a metaphorical “naked.”  Who wants that kind of responsibility? 

“There are parts I like, and there are parts I’m not crazy about.”

Do you really want to be the person who tells somebody that?

At least in this situation, the script-reading burden did not involve an e-mailed attachment, a compounding obligation involving time, a concerted effort and a hundred and twenty pages of my own paper required print up the script I would, all things being equal, prefer I did not have to read.  (Not to mention the shame of e-mailing back to say that I’m having difficulty opening the attachment.)

(I have subsequently learned to re-insert the printed-on pages “contents side up” and print out my own stuff on the other side.  But not infrequently, I mistakenly insert the pages “contents side down”, and what I subsequently print out is an illegible mishmash, not dissimilar to hieroglyphics.)

Okay, we are dealing with a factual reality here.  The script is now in my hands.  And I have been asked to evaluate it.

My first question is,

Why?

My suspicions in that regard are these:  I am a professional writer, I had a certain amount of commercial success, and they know me – the latter being essential because if they didn’t know me, I would be entirely in the clear. 

They do not have to know me that well.  In this case the writer is the daughter of a woman who has some uncertain (to me) connection to my brother’s daughter in Toronto.   It takes as little as that.  And you’re reading a stranger’s screenplay.

The thing is this:

My success was in network situation comedies, of which feature-length screenplays bear minimal resemblance.  It is also not a very recent success.  And on top of that, the three spec (original and unsolicited) screenplays I wrote and the two assigned rewrites I worked on had, all five, ended in ignominious failure.  Would you entrust yourself to a surgeon with that track record?

SURGEON:  Okay, all my patients died.  Does that mean I'm incompetent?

Yes!

The equivalent of that is who you're asking to evaluate your movie script.  Is that really who you want?

And yet…

Somebody asked.

I inquired of the aspiring screenwriter if they had given their script to other people as well, and was informed that they had.  Knowing this took a little of the pressure off me.  The responsibility would be shared.  (Though on some level I was also a little miffed.  Here I am, volunteering for this service, and the supplicant is already hedging their bets.  How’m I going to look if the other readers loved it and I didn’t?  Besides, is my informed judgment to be second-guessed by nonentities?  It’s outrageous!)

I went on to ask if the script had been submitted to the writing team the aspiring screenwriter had been working for, and was told that it hadn’t been, the explanation being that the aspiring screenwriter was concerned that their evaluation would emerge through the lens of  “This is what we would do” (a “this” the aspiring screenwriter did not entirely respect.)   

My response to the “through the lens” issue was, “Doesn’t everybody do that?”

And therein – for me – lies the thorniest difficulty of all.  Having seen reviewers respond to a show I had written with reactions all “over the map,” varying from huzzahs to “P.U”, I have developed the belief that reviewers, inevitably seeing through only the lens they have available to them, substantially, though not exclusively, review themselves.

Yes, I can pore over a script, red-penning the insufficiencies in logic, the inconsistencies in the storytelling, the overwriting or, conversely, the gaps in structural development, the personal appeal of the premise and the originality of its execution.

I can do the best job I can.  But I am using my brain and my highly subjective, and not necessarily transferable sensibilities.

What does that have to do with what the original writer had in mind?

I once critiqued a friend’s screenplay – this time, the work of a professional writer – and his reaction, which seemed to me somewhat prickly was,

“Your observations were so ‘Earl.’”

What the heck did he expect?  (My guess:  Unqualified approval.)

It is an onerous assignment, reading somebody else’s writing.  They are handing you their hopes and aspirations, which I find to be a serious weight, and they are asking for your help, which, despite its expertise and sincerity, may not actually be helpful.

Oscar Wilde once said,

“The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”

I guess that’s how I feel about this.

The only thing worse than being asked to read somebody’s screenplay is never being asked to read anybody’s screenplay.

And there, I shall call it a day, and move on to other responsibilities.

Somebody’s “Page One” is calling my name.