Tuesday, February 2, 2016

"The 'Down Side' Of Yesterday"

Yesterday I talked about the osmotic phenomenon in which your essential nature insinuates itself into your work.  The process involves nothing you deliberately do.  It just happens.  As a natural consequence of you being you, you inevitably place your inimitable fingerprint onto your writing. 

A lot of writers, early in their careers, worry about finding their own “voice.”  Forget about it.  Your voice is already there.  You just have to calm down and get out of its way.

By the way, “You’re welcome” to those writers for whom I just saved agonizing hours of apprehension and self-doubt.


It is unlikely I was aware of this phenomenon when I first started.  But I knew it instinctively about my acting, when at age twenty-one, while attending the Bertolt Brecht Summer Theater Workshop at UCLA back in 1966, I proclaimed:

“Nobody does ‘me’ better than me.”

The question about whether “doing me” was of any significant importance remained thankfully unexamined.  I was simply alluding to the aforementioned phenomenon of a projectable uniqueness that happened spontaneously and that audiences seemed to enjoy. 

Filled with excitement and pride, I was a magnificent “Me” machine.

The current screenwriter that leaps immediately to mind when I think about their essential nature materializing naturally in their writing is Aaron Sorkin. 

Aaron Sorkin sounds inimitably like himself.

How do I know what Aaron Sorkin’s “self” sounds like?  Interviews, articles and quotations.  (Of course, it is possible Sorkin has conjured a characterization of himself.  I have been bamboozled on such matters before, mistaking a person’s “image” for the actual “them”.  But in this case, I don’t think so.  Though that is hardly determinative.  I never think so.)

From the available evidence, Aaron Sorkin, the human being, is monumentally voluble, highly educated, winningly insecure, comedically wise-ass and intellectually up there.

And so are his characters.  (Making Sorkin the last choice for a “Bowery Boys” remake.)

One can easily imagine the actual Aaron Sorkin holding his own of Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs or, if he somehow magically became fictional, the team of brainiacs on The West Wing.  His dialogue is always sharp, insightful and eminently quotable.  I have quoted Aaron Sorkin in this very venue, generally reserved for my own words unless I hear something that simply blows me away. 

Here, I’ll do it again right now.

On The West Wing, one of Sorkin’s characters – I think it was Josh – bewailed “the hate that the ‘Right’ has for the ‘Left’, and the mountains of disrespect that the ‘Left’ has for the ‘Right’.”

You cannot say that better than that. 

Without doubt or question, Aaron Sorkin has a definitive “style.”

Which is great.

Until people get tired of it.

And that’s the problem.  At some point – although with Aaron Sorkin “some point” has taken a quarter of a century and has still not arrived – the audience inevitably becomes satiated with your act.  Which is a problem because since it’s your personality that is informing your act and you have only one personality, when the audience stops caring, where else are you going to turn?

“Quick!  Bring me my other personality.”

That, by the way, is why, generally speaking, hacks enjoy longer careers than unique talents.  Hacks have “voices” too.  We all do.  But they are more willing to subvert them in the name of commercial necessity.

Nobody lasts forever.  But an inveterate “sell-out” can really stretch things out.

I once in these pages made fun of an entertainment journalist required to whip up an article explaining why the film Steve Jobs had been a box office disappointment.  Unafraid to identify with the enemy – as true thinkers fear no contradiction – nor are hypocritical idiots but I prefer to think of myself as the former – I will now add to the list of possible explanations.

Steve Jobs failed at the box office because the audience had wearied of Aaron Sorkin’s “smarty-pants” routine.

Perhaps.  Or maybe not.  Who knows?  It is only a hypothesis.

This “worn out your welcome” inevitability is hardly unique to Aaron Sorkin.  It happens to everyone, if you make it.  You do your thing.  Your thing is highly successful.  And then, eventually, it isn’t.

The last word today goes to my maternal Zaidy (grandfather) Peter.  During the sixties and seventies, when singer Dean Martin hosted his own NBC variety show, Zaidy Peter, a big fan, explained to me,

“I like The Dean Martin Show.  He only sings the old songs.”

Later in its run, however, Zaidy Peter reversed his enthusiasm.  Accompanied by a telling explanation:

“I don’t like The Dean Martin Show.  He only sings the old songs.”

There’s only one “you.”  And if you’re lucky, people like it.

The nagging question – even for the people at the top, maybe especially for the people at the top  – is…

What do you do when they stop?

1 comment:

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I know I got tired of Shonda Rhimes's Sorkin-like rapid-fire all-characters-sound-the-same stuff very quickly.

However, I think you underestimate the difference between being an incredibly clever screenwriter and the depth of knowledge that makes up "smart" as in Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffet (for example). Anyone who's ever been in a newsroom knows how laughable THE NEWSROOM was; anyone who knows anything about technology and how it's developed knows how absurd the claim was that THE SOCIAL NETWORK's mock-up of Facebook happened solely because one guy was rejected for a date (when in real life Zuckerberg had a girlfriend - the same one he married a few years ago). And anyone who's ever been a woman has long since wearied of Sorkin's women who are supposed to be so smart but can't send a simple email correctly or who go batshit crazy at the first sign of male romantic interest. Yes, he wrote CJ Cregg - but even she fell off a treadmill the first time we saw her.