Going to the dentist is one of those necessary life rituals that causes an irrational explosion of anxiety in otherwise sane, stable people. The ear-slicing whine of the tiny drill as it scrapes at enamel inspires more revulsion than that of a vegan served a slab of porterhouse, more terror than the prospect of a Rob Ford sex tape. Finding out today that I need a root canal, my mind is cast to the image of C.J. Cregg on The West Wing episode “Celestial Navigation,” wailing “I had woot canaww!!” and advising that the pwesident needs to be bwiefed immediatewy. Yet my dentist assures me that I can go straight back to work, it’s not like the days I needed off from school when I had my wisdom teeth out so many moons ago. They numb you up, drill inside the tooth, extract the pulp – which you don’t need anyway once the tooth is fully formed – and cap it with a sealant. Easy peasy, really. But that won’t stop dental work from being a reliable source of dread on TV shows and the like until the medium itself expires.
There are hundreds of things that the entertainment industry has convinced us to wet our pants at the mere thought of that are in reality quite benign. Sharks and air travel are the two that spring to mind right away. Up until 1975, shark attacks were the rarest of the rare, with beachgoers more likely to suffer a nibble from a petulant sea turtle. Then Jaws drops and nobody wants to go in the water, and the fear of the shark is so indelibly etched into our collective consciousness (accompanied by John Williams’ foreboding theme music) that almost forty years later we’re still using them as stock monsters for our schlockiest of movies, only now they’re flying out of tornadoes. They’re reduced to mindless predators driven into a frenzy for human flesh by the slightest whiff of blood, the standard pet of every supervillain, sometimes even with frickin’ laser beams attached to their heads. The documentary Sharkwater had to be produced to try to restore the reputation of these fatally misunderstood creatures – murdered by the thousands every year – and yet, the Mayor’s cautionary words from Jaws still ring in everyone’s ears: “you yell ‘shark,’ and you’ve got a panic on the Fourth of July.” Whether you realize it or not, you too scan the horizon for the telltale fin when you go swimming at a tropical beach. The primal fear is that entrenched.
And then there’s the terrors in the sky. Airplanes, and indeed air travel, are almost never shown in movies or TV unless something bad is going to happen mid-flight. The plane is going to be hijacked, or run out of fuel, or hit a deadly storm, or the crew will be incapacitated, resulting in the massive jet needing to be landed by the plucky kid who loves flight simulation games on his XBox. Look at Lost, the show whose entire premise revolved around the aftermath of a plane crash on a deserted island. The first episode began with an unnamed survivor opening his eyes and staggering around the plane’s debris field, and witnessing some poor schmuck get sucked into the still-firing engine – an airliner so lethal it was still killing people after having gone down. The media doesn’t help, shunting real-life crashes to the front of any broadcast. I’ll never forget the day in 2005 when that Air France flight skidded off the runway after landing at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport and CNN’s Wolf Blitzer sounded crestfallen that there were no fatalities to report. How often do planes crash in real life, though? Once every six months or so? Sounds like a lot until you consider that in entire world, there are on average 7,000 flights daily. That’s every single day of the year. So yeah, your odds of ending up dodging the black smoke monster on that time-traveling island are pretty much on par with having a sharknado drop on top of your house before you finish reading this sentence.
I feel for dentists, I really do. Just as airlines and sharks never get a positive portrayal in the movies, neither do dentists. (For a double whammy, check out Cast Away where Tom Hanks’ plane crashes before he can make a dentist appointment for an abscessed tooth.) They’re all drawn from the Little Shop of Horrors or Marathon Man mold, depicted as sadistic, domineering and utterly inconsiderate of the sheer agony they’re about to inflict on their squirming patient. All the better for us to laugh at, I suppose. And yet their real-life counterparts have to overcome this stereotype each time a new victim – er, client walks through the door, to say nothing of the years of training and certification required to be able to do the job in the first place. A job that requires them to stick their fingers into some pretty disgusting, halitosis-wracked mouths every day. I suppose the message in all of this is that we shouldn’t rely on the movies to tell us what we should and shouldn’t be afraid of – and that we need to remember to floss.
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.
Whether by coincidence or not, I’ve come across a few articles recently about the wisdom (or folly) of including snippets of song lyrics in your novel. The consensus seems to be that it’s a bad idea. Allen Klein is dead but those who adhere to his mantra are still far and wide squeezing the vice of legality against the temples of well-meaning, starving scribes who seek to pay a tiny bit of homage to that epic anthem that helped get them through a rough patch of their lives, or, more cynically, want to drop in an overly familiar reference point that will elicit immediate emotional identification without putting in the effort to craft their own.
I get it. It’s difficult, and even a bit scary, to risk originality in a self-referential culture where everything seems to link back to something else like a giant Wikipedia. Going where no one has gone before is even more daunting given that every time you think you’re venturing down a fresh trail, you find someone else’s bootprints on it. There are simply too many of us writers attempting to figure out the human experience. It’s inevitable that more than a few will reach identical conclusions – sort of the thousand monkey/thousand typewriter argument featuring mildly more intelligent monkeys.
In one of my more wrenching experiences as a gestating writer, I lent a draft of the novel that preceded my current opus to my best friend for his feedback. I can still recall with gut-churning anxiety the pregnant pause that hung between us one afternoon when I was forced to ask him the question that chills all writers’ bones as it spills across our lips: “So, what did you think?” I don’t think the word had entered the zeitgeist yet, but his reaction was the equivalent of “meh.” I should point out here that my friend is not evil nor inconsiderate of others’ feelings. But like the most ideal of companions he will never let you twist out in the wind with your pants down if he can help set you right. And his most germane suggestion, while wounding toanyone convinced of one’s own genius as most beginners tend to be (and I certainly was back then), was not only invaluable, but continues to inform me when I compose fiction. Paraphrased, it was simply this:
“Cut the pop culture references.”
Between the tears and the simmering hatred (which quickly subsided – we’re still besties, no worries folks), it was a cloud-parting Voice of James-Mason-as-God moment – and yes, Eddie Izzard fans, I am aware of the irony of using a doubly-meta pop culture reference to illustrate this point – that I could not believe I had not seen before. And it reinforced the notion that you can’t write in a vacuum. Because I never would have come to that conclusion at that time in my life, and yet it was exactly what I needed to move forward and become a better writer. Whether it’s in using song lyrics, referencing TV shows or framing your character’s predicament in terms of how much it makes them feel like Ryan Gosling in The Notebook, there are, to me, five main reasons why popular culture should be flung far from the pages of your book:
1. It dates you
And not the good dinner-and-a-movie type either. Pop culture’s shelf life is shorter than that of the mayonnaise you’ve been meaning to throw out of your fridge for the last few weeks. Your bon mot about your hero’s wisecracking best friend being a combination of Sue Sylvester and Honey Boo Boo is going to go way sour long before your book even makes it to the shelves. I remember a few years ago when Desperate Housewives premiered and every entertainment trade paper, magazine and website could not shut themselves up about it; every goddamned article about anything television-related found a way to work in some mention of Desperate Housewives and how it was a divinely inspired paradigm-shifting watershed point in the history of broadcast programming. Ask yourself whether in 2013 and beyond, anyone is going to view a witty Desperate Housewives reference as anything but sad. (Fair warning, Downton Abbey and Girls, it will happen to you too.) You want your story to mean something to people for decades and generations to come – timeless is preferable to timely.
2. It’s meaningless unless your audience gets it
In the realm of stand-up comedy, one of the worst offenders for dropping obscure references is Dennis Miller, with the result that even the most well-read of his audiences will only laugh at his material a fifth of the time (of course, ever since he was reborn as a Dubya-lovin’ right-wing pom-pom waver, he’s been considerably less funny anyway). A reference that a great number may not understand is not the most egregious violation of “good writer etiquette,” but a major beat should never hinge on it. If, at the moment of her deepest anguish, your heroine is compelled to confess that she feels just like Bitsie Tulloch’s Dylan on Quarterlife, that’s awesome for the three people out there who remember that show and completely baffling for everyone else (i.e. 99.9999% of your readers), and thus any hope you may have harbored for soliciting empathy will be lost to the winds like the passengers and crew of Oceanic 815 (see what I did there?)
3. It’s the last refuge of the unimaginative
Licking my wounds back then, I was compelled to ask myself why I was relying so much on what other people had created instead of forging ahead on my own. Writing moments that resonate is a lot like method acting: you have to look deep inside and wrench the truth screaming from your own gut, not rely on what you once heard or saw in something somebody else wrote. And it’s an opportunity that you should never pass up, even if it is intimidating. If you’re running down the field with no one in the way, why would you pass the ball to another guy for the final five yards? You should never abdicate the chance to be creative. If you’re writing about a group of characters who have bonded over their love of a favorite TV show, why not make up your own show? I’ll get you started: every show is about cops, doctors or lawyers, so have your guys quote lines from Sergeant Lawyer, M.D. Okay, I’m staking a claim to that one and writing a pilot. “FADE IN: INT. COURTROOM – DAY – CLOSE on SERGEANT LAWYER as he contemplates a scalpel in his right hand and a semi-automatic pistol in his right. CUE the opening chords of The Who’s ‘Behind Blue Eyes.’” Aw, crap, there’s Pete Townshend’s attorney on line one.
4. It’s giving away free advertising
I’ll invoke the mighty Aaron Sorkin and repeat his maxim that a writer’s job is to captivate you for however long he’s asked for your attention. And we writers are serious bear huggers. We don’t want to let you go. We want you firmly ensconced in our world, and not thinking about TV shows and songs that have nothing to do with the story we’re trying to relate. We certainly don’t want you thinking about other products you might like to purchase. Ever wonder why you don’t ever see commercials for handguns? Because there are enough glowing closeups of barrels and triggers and bullets flying in sexy slow motion, and irrelevant exchanges of dialogue about muzzle velocities and stopping power in movies to do all the advertising gun manufacturers will ever need. Walther probably owes a great chunk if not the lion’s share of the sales of its PPK to James Bond. Sex and the City and chick lit do more for Manolo Blahnik shoes than ten years of paid ad campaigns ever would. (If I can digress further into the cinemarr for a moment, one of the most vomit-inducing examples of this was the trailer for 10 Things I Hate About You – the ad trying to get people to see the movie, oh irony of ironies – which opened with a character saying “There’s a difference between like and love. I mean, I like my Skechers, but I love my Prada backpack.” Spew.) If that’s truly your wish, then why not just publish a novel full of empty pages stamped with “Your Ad Here”? Or go to work writing advertising copy since it’s probably more up your alley.
5. And it will probably cost you
So not only will you not be paid for name-dropping all these lovely corporations and pushing their merchandise, but you’re just as likely to get dinged by the same people for using their content without the express written consent of Major League Baseball. This is an older article, but a good one from The Guardian where novelist Blake Morrison talks about how much it cost him to include fragments of popular song lyrics in his work. Don’t these people have enough money already without needing more of yours? And what’s worse, the money probably won’t even go to the artist who wrote the lyric in the first place – it’ll get split amongst various anonymous shareholders in the faceless publishing company that holds the rights to the song. If you really, desperately, achingly want to have your character sing “Bitter Sweet Symphony” to the extent that you’re more than willing to cough up whatever atrocious fee you’re invoiced for, Richard Ashcroft isn’t getting a penny, as much as he may be tickled that you quoted his signature composition. It’s going to whoever now controls ABKCO Music, the actual rights holder of that song. The thought of that should turn your stomach enough to lead you in another direction. Here’s a much better thought: Even if you can’t write chord progressions, you can probably make up your own original lyrics. Then one day, maybe someone will want to compose a song using those lyrics, and they can pay you for the privilege of doing so (or, conversely, you can sue their ass off when they steal it without acknowledging your authorship).
Having said all that, let’s make it about me again. Does any of this apply to my novel? Well, fortunately, when writing fantasy there’s less of a temptation to include popular culture since it makes no sense within the context of the story – or worse, pulls you out of the story when a grizzled medieval warrior makes anachronistic mention of the Seinfeld episode about Teri Hatcher’s boobs (argh! Desperate Housewives reference!) That isn’t to say you can’t or won’t slyly drop in semi-clever hints or vague references about the galaxy far, far closer to home. I’ve been pretty good about steering clear of that, with two or three arcane exceptions (in extremely non-consequential passages) that I won’t mention except to say that when you do read the book you get +1 Internets for finding them. I have, however, committed the faux pas of including allusions to songs as chapter titles. Not in all of them, but enough to be potentially embarrassing and/or expensive. So a quick trip to the rewrite shed is in order. But better to do it now than to get too far down the road and receive a sternly worded letter from Sergeant Lawyer, M.D. demanding recompense for what is, essentially, a throwaway gag that has no significant bearing on the greater narrative.
The moral? Make your story one hundred percent yours, soup to nuts and credits to navy beans. It’s like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman: cheaper, easier and more fulfilling too.