A dialogue on dialogue

From the new Bravo series, "Graham on Graham."
From the new Bravo series, “Graham on Graham.”

Graham (G1):  Good morning Graham, how are you?

Graham (G2):  Meh, pretty tired.  The cat decided to wake us up at three in the morning again.

G1:  That sucks.  Frickin’ felines.

G2:  Yeah.

G1:  So I saw on Twitter last night you said you thought you might write a post about dialogue today.

G2:  You must have been up late.

G1:  I was.

G2:  Couldn’t sleep either?

G1:  What “either”?  You and I are the same person.

G2:  True enough.

G1:  I’m just choosing not to be snippy and cranky about it this morning.

G2:  “Snippy” and “cranky”?  What are you, channeling our grandmother now?

G1:  Do you think we could get on with this, Mr. Snarkypants?

G2:  Fine.  Where do you want to start?

G1:  Well, it occurred to me that there is a lot of contradictory advice about dialogue floating around out there.

G2:  I’ve noticed that too.  Some people think too much dialogue is a bad thing.

G1:  I don’t get that.  I mean, obviously a novel is not a play and you need to create a balance of description and dialogue, but come on.  I think that’s an excuse invented by people who can’t write dialogue well.

G2:  And you accused me of being snarky.

G1:  Well, if I didn’t think I was a good writer of dialogue, I would pare it back as much as I could.  But do you remember when we were watching There Will Be Blood, how pretentious it seemed that there was no dialogue at all in the first half hour?  Characters were going out of their way to not talk.  It was forced and artificial.  Real people are insatiable chatterboxes.

G2:  Our son would certainly agree with you there.

G1:  He’s kind of the singular example.

G2:  Yeah.  But you wouldn’t write a character like him, would you?

G1:  No.  Because a lot of what he says is just random stuff that pops into his head – half-remembered lines from TV shows, updates on the video game he’s playing, stuff he did at school that day.  It doesn’t have a lot of coherence to it, or readability if you were to type it out word for word.

G2:  Naturally.  He’s twelve, and he’s a real person, not a character in a novel.  We’re not expecting erudition and fully formed sentences with multiple clauses.

G1:  No, no one would believe that, even in a novel.  Unless you were portraying him as the most preternatural, linguistically-gifted twelve-year-old in the history of the human race.

G2:  We love him very much, but no, that’s not who he is.

G1:  Nope.  So there’s a balance between the accurate portrayal of a twelve-year-old’s mentality and the need to establish a readable character, one who serves the narrative.  People just don’t talk how writers need to write them.  We yammer on about everything but what’s actually on our mind – we tell silly jokes, we blather about the weather.  In a story you have to get to the point.

G2:  That’s what you mean about serving the narrative.

G1:  Yeah.  Every conversation needs to push some aspect of the story, if only the slightest of nudges.  The relationships between the characters need to develop, or the characters have to get closer to their goal.  If your guys are going to stop for a five minute exegesis on hamburgers, there had better be some payoff to it.

G2:  Hamburgers… you’re thinking Pulp Fiction again.

G1:  You know me so well.  That’s a really good example.  That whole conversation between Jules and Vincent has nothing to do with the plot, but it helps establish their relationship, and shows us that these guys are interesting, endearing people we’re going to dig spending time with.  Even though they are on their way to commit a series of murders.  Would we have liked them if they’d devoted the conversation to the methodology of how they were going to kill the guys once they got to the apartment, or worse, said nothing at all?

G2:  That would have been the insufferable arthouse version.

G1:  So, I come back to this idea of balance.  You can go too far the other way, where characters become plot explainers.  I’ve seen this in fantasy a lot, where two people who have no real reason to talk to each other do an information dump about where they are in their quest, what happened over the last couple of days, and what has to happen next.  There’s no nuance to the conversation – the characters just agree with each other for pages on end as they lay out the story so far.  It’s the “As you know, Bob” problem.  Or Basil Exposition, depending on your preferences.  If the sole purpose of your dialogue is to tell your audience things they could learn another way, You’re Doing It Wrong.

G2:  My eyelids sag at the mere thought.  Of course, you and I are basically just agreeing with each other here.  What did you mean by nuance?

G1:  Characters should never talk about what they’re actually talking about.  Concepts and pellets of information should be implied, not blatant.

G2:  Oh, so we would talk about mochacinos in the guise of discussing dialogue?

G1:  I like to approach conversations from oblique angles.  Like yeah, maybe I would compose a scene of two writers (or two halves of the same mind, as it were) discussing dialogue and set it in line at a Starbucks while they wait for their lattés.

G2:  Yeah, because you’d never find a writer at a Starbucks.  Real original.

G1:  You get my point, though?

G2:  Not really.  Please explain it to me with statistics and visual aids.

G1:  You cribbed that line.  You really need to get more sleep.

G2:  I really need a lot of things and sleep gets in the way of them.

G1:  Suit yourself.  Picture it this way.  When you’re building dialogue, you have a couple of elements to consider.  You have the setting.  You have the goal – the piece of information that you need to convey.  Maybe it’s a simple fact, maybe it’s a clue to the mystery, maybe it’s the next step in a relationship.  That’s where you’re heading, but you don’t start with it.  You start in the wilderness and build towards it.  Imagine a scene of a couple eating in a restaurant.  The husband has to tell the wife that he’s lost his job, but he doesn’t know how to break the news.  His first line, then, is not going to be “I don’t know how to tell you this, but I lost my job.”  Is it?

G2:  I guess it could be, but that seems a waste of a lot of potential dramatic tension.

G1:  Exactly.  Instead, you might start with them talking about the food they’re eating, other restaurants they’ve been in, you know, casual, everyday, innocent stuff.  They might recall fond memories of when they were first dating.  The husband will realize that losing his job means they won’t be able to have nights like this anymore.  That will start to creep into what he’s saying to his wife.  She’ll notice something’s wrong and she’ll ask him about it.  He’ll deny it.  She’ll ask again.  He’ll deny it again, until he breaks down and confesses – or maybe doesn’t at all.  You see how 95% of the conversation won’t be about the main piece of information that comes at the very end, right?  Instead, you find your way in from the edges.  Organically.  The characters will lead you there on their own.

G2:  Like the scene in our novel where the two leads talk about their respective parents.  It begins with the heroine humming a stupid old folk song, and the guy noting that he recognizes it.

G1:  Or the scene later on where a conversation about the role of women in the world begins with a chat about sandwiches.

G2:  Pick the oddest thing and work your way back from it.

G1:  You are learning, young padawan.  The other thing to keep in mind too is that unless you’re writing a 1920’s silent movie, characters don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves.  Nor do most people.  Subtlety and understatement are the way to go.  A solemn declaration of undying love shouldn’t sound like it was scripted for daytime TV.  In fact, avoid solemn declarations of undying love altogether.

G2:  Something just occurred to me.  We’re unpublished – where do we get off flinging rules around like so much confetti?

G1:  There are no rules, only our interpretation of our own truth.  There is every possibility that this exercise has been one in utter nonsense.  We can only pass along what works for us in the hope that someone else might find it useful.  And this is a rich topic that could go on for thousands upon thousands of words, but eventually, folks will want to tell us to shut up.

G2:  Are there some resources we could point people towards?

G1:  I think you just have to read a lot of books, watch a lot of movies written by great writers, listen to a lot of different kinds of people talking and process it all in the mind’s blender.  And then try and fail a few times on your own before you figure it out.

G2:  You were going to mention Aaron Sorkin, weren’t you.

G1:  We both know he’s a big influence on us, it goes without saying.  Look at him, look at people like David Mamet, Richard Curtis, and David Seidler, who wrote The King’s Speech, to name but a very few.  Listen to their rhythms, listen to how someone like Mamet deconstructs patterns of speech to convey character.  Glengarry Glen Ross is a terrific example of this.  The scene between Moss and Aaronow “talking about” versus “speaking about” is fantastic.

G2:  You haven’t mentioned any actual novelists.

G1:  Well, funny you should bring that up, because we’re reading a book right now, Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, which has an interesting approach to dialogue.  It’s a western, set in 1851 California, but everyone speaks in very elegant, grammatically precise phrases that are probably not an accurate reflection of how people in 1851 California really spoke.  Not the artistic choice I was expecting, but refreshing after plodding through Ian Fleming’s clumsy attempts at American slang which felt as artificial as nobody talking in the first act of There Will Be Blood did.

G2:  Way to bring it full circle, dude.

G1:  I know what you like.  Anyway, how to portray dialect, how to vary word choices to denote different speakers, the value of repetition, talking it out to make sure it sounds right – like I said, a rich palette and worth discussing further at a later time.

G2:  If you can persuade me to do this again.  I feel like I didn’t get to say very much.  You were doing all the talking.

G1:  You’re tired.  The cat, remember?  Just looking out for you.

G2:  Oh, yeah.  Thanks.  Cheers, mate.

G1:  You too.

Advertisements

Kicking stupid to the curb

There’s a person in the U.S. who thinks abortion should be banned because fetuses masturbate.  There was another one a few weeks ago who claimed that yoga was a gateway to Satanism.  Are these the random ravings of a guy on a street corner with a cardboard sign proclaiming the imminent arrival of the apocalypse?  No, they are statements made in seriousness by elected officials.  People who have managed to convince a sizable number of other people to entrust them with a position of real power and influence.  On last Friday’s Real Time with Bill Maher, one of the panelists, herself a Republican (oh yeah, the aforementioned remarks were both made by Republicans, as if you needed to guess) thought the “masturbating fetuses” comment represented a tipping point, and that sanity would begin to reassert itself on the right wing.  What has become abundantly clear over the last decade where politics is concerned is that there is no such thing as a tipping point anymore.  Every time we think we’ve reached the limit of the pendulum swing towards “the crazy,” someone else doubles down.  And someone else doubles down again on that someone else.  Forget tipping points – we’ve fallen off the cliff, and we’re competing to see who can scream loudest on the way down.

Last year’s comedy The Campaign was supposed to be an absurdist take on an escalating battle of nutbars for a congressional seat, and as star Zach Galifianakis observed, they found themselves out-absurded by real life.  Birtherism, “You lie,” the 47%, “legitimate rape,” Sarah Palin, anchor baby terrorism, unborn self-pleasure and Downward Dog apparently now being a reference to Cerberus, absolutely none of this meme-ready dumbassery, enough to cost any one of us regular folks our jobs and our friends were we to utter them in public, has been able to persuade the general public that something is rotten in the state of our discourse.  Rather, ideology has been entrenched in cement.  In the past I compared it to how fans support sports teams with unfailing devotion, but that may have been inaccurate.  Even the most dedicated fans will criticize their team from time to time, and the most zealous will go at their chosen squad with profane hatchets if they are dissatisfied with how the season is going.  Not so in politics.  Usually, an elected official who gets rightly excoriated for saying something inane and insulting will do the “I misspoke” non-apology apology routine and turn the incident into a fundraising plea by complaining that the big bad mainstream media is picking on them.  The lemmings will duly empty their wallets in response, and the rest of the world will shake its head at the same old story playing out again and again.

Living in a democracy means that theoretically, any citizen should be able to step up into a position of leadership so long as they have been properly elected by a majority of voters.  (The role of money puts the lie to this basic assumption, but let’s just go with it as a key principle for the sake of my argument here.)  That does not mean, however, that everyone living in said democracy is capable of governing, just as the guy who sits on his bar stool bitching about the Leafs does not actually possess the skill set to coach them to a Stanley Cup victory.  The canard that “the system is broken” is repeated ad nauseum to justify a cynical attitude toward public institutions.  Even those in power rely on the “everybody does it” excuse – see the Canadian Conservatives trying to deflect justified public outrage at their Senators’ grotesque abuse of taxpayer-funded expense accounts by flinging blame back at the Liberals (who have been out of power for seven years).  Justin Trudeau had it right when he said that the solution is not abolishing the institution, it’s choosing better people to populate it.  I feel like I say this a lot, and yet, it bears repeating – why is the bar set so catastrophically low for what we expect from the people we choose to govern us?  If our only qualification for electing someone is a suit, a flag pin and a series of poll-tested sound bites, why do we then act surprised when things go wrong?  It’s government by the lowest common denominator, and it keeps rolling along with the inevitability of the seasons and the tides.

Here’s a thought experiment.  Imagine going on a job interview – it doesn’t matter what the job is – and whatever question is asked, just pivot to how important family values, faith, low taxes and supporting the troops is to you.  Which outcome is more likely – landing the corner office or never hearing from the interviewers again?  Let’s delve deeper into this situation.  What are you usually asked when you’re being interviewed?  Questions about your experience as it pertains to this new role, ability to function as part of a team, aspirations for your potential future with the organization, your general character.  When one considers the lofty esteem with which the private sector is regarded (as compared to the piss poor reputation of the public sector), why should its standards for hiring not apply equally to choosing from a slate of candidates for office?  If you want the best government, should not those selected to take part in it boast the deepest, most relevant resumes, and a corresponding depth of character and empathy for one’s fellow human being?  If governing is supposed to be serving the public, you would think that a general like of the public would be a critical qualifier for taking part in it, which seems rarely to be the case.  We are inundated with angry elected faces spewing hateful rhetoric against everyone and everything that is wrong with this country, but of course, it’s the greatest country in the world and it’s perfect and infallible and hooray for freedom and support the troops.

Sorry to get off on a rant there for a moment, but I’ll bring it back to earth again.  There has been a confluence between the world of reality TV, which bases its revenue model on attracting viewers with displays of stupidity, and the world of politics.  The ensuing treatment of the stupid in our civilization, where it is better to make noise than speak substance, leads to tolerance, expectation, and finally glorification and celebration of stupidity.  Will the “masturbating fetuses” congressman apologize, resign in disgrace and spend the rest of his life asking his customers if they want fries with that?  Nope, he’ll be re-elected, handily, and continue to give the world the benefit of his inexperience and ineptitude.  And people will suffer, directly or indirectly, because of it.

Unless, as the Lorax said.

Never before in our history have we been so equipped to take stupidity head-on and kick its drooling, mouth-breathing hindquarters to the metaphorical curb.  We walk around with repositories of infinite knowledge clipped to our belts, packed with tools to root out willful ignorance.  We don’t have to be spoon-fed with what the self-propagating media machine is serving us in the name of getting us to buy things – we can become active pursuers of truth, and exposers of the foolishness that left unchecked will lead our civilization the way of Rome.  When we complain about congressional gridlock, or free-spending senators, we must accept the blame for gifting such unworthy persons with the responsibility to make decisions for us, and the resulting course of our country.  We need to vet these people better before we decide to trust them, and to hold even the most noble of souls rigidly accountable once in office.  And we have absolutely no excuse not to do it anymore.  The resources are at our fingertips.  It has never been easier.  It takes only the will to use them.  One click to start to make the world a better place.  Is the status quo really preferable?  Are we just morbidly fascinated to see what comes next, what new Caligula or Nero will dare present himself for our appraisal?

How well did that work out for the Romans?

The followers game

Western Bluebirds by Julio Mulero. Creative Commons license.

“How to get more followers fast!” is the 21st Century equivalent of “How to make money in real estate with no money down.”  In social media, we measure success not by dollars earned, but by reach – by the size of our audience.  Given that the vast majority of those who use social media are looking for bigger numbers, it’s unsurprising that the vultures would swoop in and begin releasing endless volumes of “how-to” schemes.  Though widespread, the advice is more or less the same – use some variety of app to follow large numbers, unfollow people who don’t follow you back, rinse and repeat.  Presto, tens of thousands of strangers hanging on your every word, a massive untapped market ready to lap up whatever variation of widget you want to push on them.

Or is it?

What these “get followers fast” folks won’t tell you is how many of these new people are truly engaged with you – if they care about what you have to say, or if they just followed you because they have a similar app building a following for them.  I’ve posted before about what I look for in people I choose to follow, and when I see someone new following me who has almost identical following/follower numbers, my red flag is raised (especially if their feed is nothing but requests/pleas/desperate cries to buy their book).  Often I won’t follow back, and a few days later I will react with not a shred of surprise when that person disappears from my followers list.  Sayonara, nice to know ya, sorta.  The question I would ask is, what is ultimately more worthwhile:  100 engaged Twitter friends or 100,000 “followers” who never retweet you, never click on your links and never reply to anything you put out there?  100 people who like and care about you or 100,000 who consider you nothing more than a digit?

By any measure advanced by every social media “guru” or “ninja” (aside, isn’t being a ninja antithetical to the concept of social media?  I mean, you want people to know you’re there, right?), my Twitter presence is a failure.  I have been on Twitter for over two years and I have just over 400 followers.  Not exactly Lady Gaga numbers (she probably garners that many every twenty minutes).  Yeah, we love the electric charge we feel when we open it up one morning and see an uptick, and we loathe the disappointment of watching the counter tick down.  I can point to three incidences when I’ve seen a surge in new people coming on board – two of them involve being retweeted by famous people (Justin Trudeau and Russell Crowe respectively), while the third was tied to a Huffington Post article of mine about airline travel that was featured as a headline.  Other than that, it stays pretty steady.  One wonders from time to time if there’s something one is doing or not doing that is keeping the digits immobile.  Am I not funny/irreverent/profound/snarky enough?  What do I have to do to mimic the example of Megan Amram who started from nothing and parlayed a massive Twitter following into a professional TV writing career?

The truth is, nothing.  You can’t be anyone but who you are, as people will be able to smell phoniness ten miles away.  And pretending to be something you’re not is exhausting.  It will suck you dry, because you’ll be forcing yourself to live up to an unnatural standard, and you’ll begin resenting having to fake it day in and day out.  Twitter shouldn’t be a duty, it should be entertaining, thought-provoking, and fun.  Because Twitter has no societal strata barring entry, you can jump right in and chat with whomever you please (of course, customary manners still apply, or you’ll find yourself on a lot of “blocked” lists really darn fast).  Thus you get a chance to befriend and talk with people you might otherwise never meet.  I look back on my Twitter experience and I think of some of the amazing, generous people I’ve encountered, some of the stimulating conversations I’ve had, some of the fantastic writing I’ve discovered, and above all, the quality, not the quantity, of these interactions.  The enrichment of one’s life through being able to communicate with kindred spirits far and wide.  That is Twitter to me, not a race to ratchet up a follower count.

I cringe every time I see one of these automatic updates about someone’s day on Twitter that consist of nothing other than an accounting of their new followers and unfollowers (in the past, I have unfollowed otherwise interesting people who’ve overdone it with these waste-of-Tweets).  It’s plain old boasting, and the height of narcissism to assume that anyone else cares about your self-applied sense of awesomeness.  What I would consider to be a successful day on Twitter consists of more intangible statistics.  If I’ve made someone laugh, if I’ve moved someone to tears, if I’ve helped someone to think differently about a difficult situation, if I’ve provided a little bit of inspiration, or I’ve motivated someone to make a positive change in their life, that means more than numbers ever will.  So the gurus will cluck their tongues, the ninjas will fling throwing stars at me and tell me I’m Doing It Wrong, but truly, just as everyone is meant to find and follow their own path in life, so too is everyone’s social media experience whatever they choose to make of it.  Mine works for me.  How’s yours going?

Lego minifigures, why so serious?

spaceman

This fascinating article from last week illuminated an otherwise unnoticed fact – that over the last few decades, the faces printed on Lego minifigures have been getting steadily more angry and intense.  Those cute little plastic guys, population 4 billion and rising, who for a long time faced the world with a uniform array of sweet smiles have succumbed to the creeping angst of a 21st Century obsessed with dystopia and inner turmoil.  Is nothing sacred?  Is there no refuge from the seeming relentless push towards “dark and edgy” as the only virtues in our entertainment, no matter its form?

My first Lego set came my way when Jimmy Carter was still President; it was a Space set featuring a tiny wedge-shaped ship, controlled by a steering wheel, mounted on a launch vehicle, and it included a single red-suited spaceman, happy at the prospect of the adventures he was certain to have with me.  Shortly thereafter Lego became my toy of choice – forget Transformers, G.I. Joes or whatever else, if that wrapped Christmas present didn’t manifest the trademark rattle when shaken it was bound to be disappointment on the morning of December 25th.  With birthdays and other special occasions my armada grew to include astronauts in white and yellow, and eventually (once the line expanded) blue and black.  And darn it if those little guys weren’t always cheerful.  Even when Lego went a step further and introduced the first “bad guys” of Lego Space – Blacktron – beneath those ominous dark-shielded helmets could be found the same delightful grin.  The same went for the Town and Castle lines.

Kids grow up, of course, and Lego falls by the wayside… until 1998 and Lego Freakin’ Star Wars drops.  By then I’m handling my own discretionary spending and so set after set gets snapped up to the detriment of my income but to the benefit of recapturing childhood glee.  But the minifigures have changed.  Their faces have been customized to better suit the Star Wars characters.  Leia has eyelashes and lipstick, Han has a little wry smirk.  Luke Skywalker looks rather dour with a very even, mature expression more suited to the way Mark Hamill looks now than his A New Hope variant.  As the line prospers, pieces are refined and more and more sets are released, with the minifigures continuing to evolve alongside them, finally trading in their trademark yellow hue for tones borrowed from the actors who played the characters.  And many of them are downright grumpy.  A few of the nameless officers still sport the crescent-moon grin, as though working for the Galactic Empire or the Rebellion respectively is the most awesomest job ever, but the more famous characters are all pretty darned serious.  And this is only Star Wars – this isn’t considering Batman, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter or the Lego City lines or innumerable others where often, minifigures look pissed off, as if someone has completely ruined their wonderful little plastic day.  (We won’t get into the replacement of megaphones with blaster pistols for the Stormtroopers’ weapons, that’s another conversation).

So, is Lego driving this trend or is it merely responding to the downward (emotionally speaking, that is) trend in popular taste?  Whenever you hear about a new movie or television series being pitched, the makers’ first comment is usually that it’s “dark and edgy,” almost as a reflex response.  It’s what’s in – presumably, a “bright and sunny” film would be laughed out of the room.  We have seen countless remakes and reimaginings where otherwise optimistic tales are “darkened” for public consumption.  And yet, there is obviously an appetite for optimism that is desperate to be satisfied, growing ever hungrier every time “dark and edgy” sighs its way onto our screens again.  We saw evidence of this appetite in recent years with the brony phenomenon coming out of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, where otherwise-angst-consumed teens and adults embraced a colorful children’s cartoon that emphasized the importance of kindness in all things.  We want to feel happy, yet our entertainment producers keep shoving melancholy down our throats, and we swallow it willingly, trying to ignore the sting of the razor blade as it rattles its way down into our stomachs.

Lego is hedging their bets somewhat, as it often prints Janus-like heads with two different expressions, one serene and one more intense, that can be rotated depending on the mood of play.  Part of what made the original smiling minifigure so endearing, however, was that no matter what horrific fate might befall him – usually bisection in a spaceship crash, if we’re going by my experience – he came through it with unflappable joy and spunk, ready to be reassembled for more.  No matter what kind of day you’d had, if you’d flunked a test or been shoved into the locker again by that mean kid twice your size, when you shuffled back into your room your Lego men were always smiling at you and standing ever ready to help you explore the very limits of your imagination.  Maybe there are limits to what a bunch of little plastic guys can teach a kid, but the attitude of the classic minifigure – embracing challenge with positivity no matter what the circumstance – is worth preserving and passing along.  Let’s save the angst until high school at least.

(Re)Writing Challenge #1: Green Eggs and Ham

geah

Tired of your own voice?  Try writing as someone else!  When one is blocked, feeling intimidated by the overwhelming talent of others or otherwise discouraged about the state of one’s literary pursuits, one potential solution is to come at things from a different angle.  If your ego is tripping you up, just set it aside.  Become a different person.  Shapeshift (or as my malaprop-prone son sometimes says, ship-shafe’t).  It’s incredibly liberating.  You feel so much less pressure to live up to the standards that you’ve placed upon yourself, because what you’re producing isn’t really you.  It’s pastiche, it’s fun, and I’ve done it before, here and here.  So you can probably guess where I’m heading with this.  I’ve decided to take one of the simplest, most enduring stories, Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham, and speculate what it might have sounded like had Aaron Sorkin banged it out.  Enjoy it.  Or don’t, it’s entirely up to you.

FADE IN:

INT. LEO’S OFFICE – DAY

LEO MCGARRY is at his desk.  On the phone.

LEO:  Yeah.  Okay.  Thanks.

He hangs up.

LEO:  Margaret!!!

MARGARET pokes her head in, notepad and pen at the ready.

MARGARET:  You really don’t need to yell.

LEO:  Yeah, this time I do.  Send in Josh and Toby.  Tell the Secretary of Agriculture he needs to be up on the Hill smooth-talking the committee chair on 404.  And I need the next five minutes the President’s got.

MARGARET steps out.  JOSH LYMAN and TOBY ZIEGLER enter.

JOSH:  Leo, settle something for us.  You’re on a desert island and you have a choice between Iolanthe and the Mikado.

LEO:  Yeah, I don’t really care.  Listen…

JOSH:  This is about the Ag Bill, isn’t it.

TOBY:  It’s not the Ag Bill.

JOSH:  I bet it’s the Ag Bill.

TOBY:  It’s not gonna be the Ag Bill, the one that we just spent seven weeks negotiating, to the detriment of our physical and psychological health, not to mention every social relationship we ever pretended to care about.

LEO:  It’s the Ag Bill.

TOBY (resigned):  This is why I continue to hate the world.

JOSH:  What happened?

LEO:  I just got off a call with the Minority Whip.  Republican leadership is attaching an amendment.

TOBY:  To the Ag Bill.

LEO:  Yeah.

TOBY:  To the bill that cost us the support of the entire progressive wing of the Democratic caucus.

JOSH:  I’m telling you, we coulda used those three votes.

TOBY:  To the bill that is basically a laundry list of every Republican priority on agriculture in this country.  A bill that could not be more Republican-friendly if we called it the “Ronald Reagan Second Amendment Let’s Blow Up an Abortion Clinic and Drill in Yellowstone Bill.”

LEO:  Yeah.

TOBY (smirks, looks down):  Why?

LEO:  They’re not happy with the subsidies for organic hen farming and pork production.  They want them taken out or they won’t move the bill out of Committee.

JOSH:  The Republicans are threatening to block the bill because they don’t like green eggs and ham?

LEO:  They do not like green eggs and ham.

TOBY:  I do not like them.

LEO:  Sam!

SAM SEABORN is walking by the open door.  He stops and pokes his head in.

SAM:  I am!

LEO:  Siddown.  Republicans are attaching an amendment to 404.  We need to see if we can unlock some Democratic votes for it.

SAM:  If they didn’t like the bill before, they’re not going to go for it with another Republican amendment.  What is it this time?

TOBY:  Green eggs and ham.

SAM:  The organic farming section?

LEO:  Who do we have on our side that’s movable if that part’s gone?

SAM:  You might get Jankowitz, Stephens… Geller’ll vote for it just to stick it to Martindale and his three.

JOSH:  I can probably wrangle three more from the Blue Dogs.

TOBY:  Nothing like fighting for a watered-down joke of a bill we never wanted in the first place.

LEO:  Okay.  Time to make some calls.  We need this win, I don’t gotta tell you twice.  The latest Gallup says our poll numbers are softening and the country is crying out for a solid agricultural policy.

TOBY:  Which we’ll get by getting rid of green eggs and ham.

JOSH:  It’s okay, nobody likes green eggs and ham.

PRESIDENT BARTLET enters from the side door.

BARTLET:  What’s this about green eggs and ham?

LEO:  Republican amendment to 404.  Deleting the organic farming section.

BARTLET:  Well, if there’s one thing we can count on Republicans for, it’s screwing Mother Earth with her pants on.

LEO:  Sir…

BARTLET:  Did you know that organic farm subsidies account for a tenth of one percent of all federal spending on agriculture?  We’re happy to fork out the cash, so long as you’re spraying your fields with toxic sludge you wouldn’t dare use to wax your own car.  You know what the problem is?  No one’s ever been forced to try green eggs and ham.  We’ve become a country so accustomed to the comfort of familiarity that the thought of change has become a terrifying prospect.  Even if that change is for the better.  The problem with that is, it’s not what the Framers had in mind.  America was meant to be an experiment in constant change.  Forming a more perfect union is about forever trying new things with the understanding that some of them will be scary, and some of them won’t work.  Some will be spectacular failures.  But we have to try them anyway, because we’ll never know if we don’t.  It’s like Voltaire said:  we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the necessary.  Who knows – in the midst of all the noise, all the partisan bickering, maybe we’ll find out in the end that we do like green eggs and ham.

Determination settles upon the faces of his staff.

LEO:  About 404, sir?

BARTLET:  Let’s have a debate.  A real debate.  We the People can decide if they like green eggs and ham.

SAM:  Not for nothing, but I’ve always liked them.

LEO:  Sam…

SAM:  I am.

FADE OUT.

What’d ya think?  Anyone else want to give it a go?  Pick a different writer – novelist, screenwriter, whoever, and retell your version of Green Eggs and Ham in their voice.  Put the link to your story in the comments.  Anxious to see what you come up with!

Star Trek, Superman, “coolness,” and truth

Cool.
Cool.

My friend George sent me a link to a really long (but interesting nonetheless) rant about Star Trek Into Darkness the other day.  The author of said rant was not in any way a fan of Damon Lindelof, the Hollywood screenwriter who co-created Lost and contributed to the scripts of both Ridley Scott’s misfired Alien prequel Prometheus and the most recent reimagining of Gene Roddenberry’s vision.  To paraphrase, it’s perhaps enough to say that the author’s main gripe with Lindelof is that his writing forgoes logic, rules and consistent characterization in favor of “gee whiz,” “cool” and giggling at boobies instead.  Even as someone who enjoyed Star Trek Into Darkness for what it was, I found it hard to dispute this point.  One of the biggest of my own gripes about it was the ending, cribbed almost note for note from the superior Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, to the point where it came off as something like a cinematic exercise in karaoke.  Movies in this genre nowadays rarely, if ever, make you feel anything.  And the reason, plainly, is that they are being made by a generation of filmmakers who have not felt, but rather have experienced life only by watching other movies.

I don’t know Damon Lindelof and I can’t pretend to know what he’s gone through in his life.  Certainly his drive and his skill at achieving the career he has is to be admired and envied.  But he seems to be one of a breed of young writers and directors from the mold of Quentin Tarantino, who spent their formative years working in video stores, absorbing thousands upon thousands of famous and obscure movies into malleable brains, uploading raw data Matrix-style to that place where the memories of life would normally be stored.  The work they produce now as the chief drivers of the Hollywood machine is endless pastiche; pieces of other works recombined and reimagined for modern consumption.  I had a discussion with my uncle recently about the decline in quality of movie scripts and I told him it’s because foreign markets make up the majority of a movie’s profit potential, and vehicles driven by visual effects and explosions and “cool!” will do better overseas than more literate works filled with idioms and ideas and cultural mores that don’t translate into Mandarin or Hindi.  Studio executives hire filmmakers who can deliver dollars, not philosophy.  (If they can do both at the same time, fine, that usually means Oscars, but the former is always preferable).  This is where folks like Damon Lindelof find their wheelhouse.  (In fairness to him, Star Trek Into Darkness was co-written by Alex Kurtzman and Bob Orci, and certainly director J.J. Abrams had major story input as well).  They can deliver the popcorn with consistency and efficiency.  But that’s all.

There is a semi-famous story (to Trekkers, anyhow) around the writing of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  When Nicholas Meyer was hired as its director, he was told there were at least five different scripts for it floating around, none of which were suitable to shoot.  Meyer suggested a meeting whereby the creative team made a note of everything they liked from any of the drafts – a character, a scene, even something as minor as a line of dialogue.  Meyer took these notes away and wrote a draft of what would become the movie we saw in only twelve days, forsaking a writing credit simply to get the movie in shape to shoot.  In any other hands such a cut-and-paste job might have resulted in a hackneyed, disjointed mess, but Meyer’s literary background enabled him to infuse a theatrical quality into what was otherwise a straightforward story of revenge and sacrifice.  What was most remarkable about the screenplay was that it dared to present its hero as old, tired and washed-up – traits actors loathe playing because they think the audience will project them onto their real-life selves.  Meyer was young when he wrote the screenplay, but as a struggling artist he could empathize with those things.  Hotshot screenwriters who’ve bounced effortlessly from pre-sold blockbuster to pre-sold blockbuster as the new Star Trek team have done are incapable of this.  They don’t know what it’s like to fail, to come up against your own limitations and find yourself wanting.  They simply can’t dramatize what they have never felt.  And so they reach toward the only place they’ve ever found traces of those feelings – other, better movies.

When I picture Nicholas Meyer writing Star Trek II, I see an angsty face hunched over a typewriter, sucking down his twentieth cigarette, plumbing the depths of his soul as he agonizes over le mot juste, fighting to find the emotional truth of the story.  When I picture the story break sessions for Star Trek Into Darkness, I see a room full of young guys in baseball caps scarfing down pizza and Red Bull and trying to one-up each other with statements like “You know what would be totally awesome?  A shot of the Enterprise rising out of the ocean.”  “How about they come across this ship which is twice their size and totally painted black?”  “COOL!”  “Hey, guys, check this out.  What if the bad guy… is Khan?  And the end is exactly like Wrath of Khan only we switch Kirk and Spock’s places?”  “Yeah!  I love it!”  “It’s pretty good, but we need some hot alien chicks with tails.  And more Beastie Boys songs, that went over so well last time.”

I had the same problem with Superman Returns, which I watched again recently, and I chalk it up once more to a screenplay written by capable but very young scribes Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris (they have cameos in the movie as high school students) who were great at dreaming up “Cool!” trailer-worthy moments like a bullet bouncing off Superman’s eye but not so skilled at crafting emotions or believable characters.  Superman is a difficult character to write even if you’re a seasoned pro, but the main reason that movie didn’t connect with audiences was because Superman really has no story in it.  He’s just… there, as lifeless as the dated-looking CGI used to render him in some of the flying scenes.  He talks about having been gone for a while but doesn’t seem to have been changed by his experience, or have any compelling reason to have come back (apart from using his powers to stalk Lois Lane in several unnerving sequences).  The movie is more interested in the “whiz-bang” spectacle of Lex Luthor’s overly complicated plot to create a new continent in the Atlantic Ocean using stolen Kryptonian crystals and kryptonite, which in the end Superman just ignores as he lifts the entire landmass into outer space (a point not lost on my young son who remarked “isn’t kryptonite supposed to make him weak?”)  And for a movie that directly raises the question of whether or not the world needs Superman, it never gets around to debating this point in a satisfactory way.  Compare the wafer-thin Superman Returns to the profundity in the Richard Donner original that it is paying homage to, and it comes up extremely short – because the young writers of the former simply don’t have the chops of the great veteran Tom Mankiewicz (whom they crib lines from in the movie’s only memorable scenes, just as Lindelof, Orci and Kurtzman quoted Meyer’s famous dialogue verbatim in Star Trek Into Darkness).  Instead, we get dumb gags about dogs eating each other.

Someone once decimated Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace by pointing out that the plot was a series of scenes of characters going from meeting to meeting to meeting, a reflection of the life of George Lucas at the time.  I’m all for encouraging young screenwriters to get their shot at the big time, but as a lover of stories that matter I prefer the visceral resonance you’ll see in works by writers who’ve lived long enough to have had their asses kicked around the block a few times.  If you’ve never been the underdog, you can’t know what it’s like to be looking up at the mountain and be paralyzed with the fear of taking the first step.  In the absence of those memories you reach for what others have done in older, better movies, and cough up pale copies that rely on flash and swagger to cover the absence of substance.  “Yeah, it doesn’t matter that none of these characters say or do anything memorable or touching, ’cause… cool badass aliens with frickin’ laser beams!  Like in that other movie that people enjoyed!”  The abiding irony in all of this is that as it concerns Star Trek, some of the most memorable dialogue in The Wrath of Khan was itself lifted from other sources, namely Moby Dick et al.  But in that movie, it didn’t feel so obviously recycled, because Meyer’s informed writing and directing (and terrific performances, by the by) sold the emotional truth of each word.

I’m not saying there should be some rule that you can’t write a movie unless you’re at least 40, have been divorced once and be suffering a deep psychological resentment of your parents for taking your favorite blankie away when you were four.  I’m saying that some of these young guys pulling in six and seven figures for rewrite jobs should perhaps look away from a screen once in a while, get out and live a bit of their lives.  Read some classic literature.  Rediscover what it means to feel something that isn’t necessarily just the high of sleeping with models after a gala premiere.  Worry less about what’s cool and more about what connects.  Recognize that what touches us about movies and stays with us long after we’ve left the theater isn’t the awesome shot of the ship tumbling end over end into the atmosphere, it’s the quiet dignity of man in his darkest hour and the deep bonds we forge to fight against our intrinsic loneliness.  It’s the humanity.  And if you can’t feel that in your own life, you’ll never successfully translate it to the page, let alone to the screen.