Tag Archives: William Goldman

Exorcising the Haunted Past

Capt. Renault tries to get Rick to fess up.
Capt. Renault tries to get Rick to fess up.

“We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us” – Magnolia (a movie I detested, proving again that flowers sometimes grow from a pile of manure)

I saw a tweet flit through this morning about how someone was wishing that just once, a character wasn’t haunted by his or her past.  At first it’s a sentiment one might rush to agree with, given the seeming flood in popular culture of privileged yet angst-ridden characters wailing to the cold, unfeeling world that no one can possibly understand the soul-scraping depth of their pain.  The impetus to scream “get over it!” in those instances can be difficult to resist.  But it’s probably overly simplistic to blame the trope of the “haunted past,” given that the reason it still functions is that everyone you meet has a past, and in quite a few of those cases, it wasn’t all smiles und sunshine.  We are creatures of linear time; our past informs the decisions we make in the present as we plan for the future.  The concept of learning is based on the notion that we must garner wisdom by making mistakes, reflecting on those mistakes and correcting them to be able to go forward.  The propagation of the human race depends on this.  How many of us are married to the first person we ever dated?  Do we not apply the lessons from the fumbling moments of that first awkward relationship to our subsequent dalliances in the hopes of establishing a permanent connection with the right person?  Yet admittedly, as company, we become tiresome if we dwell forever on things we once did wrong – if we live in that past instead of simply letting ourselves be guided by it.

In the creation of enduring characters, this is a tricky tightrope to walk.  Expecting an audience to sympathize with a perfect person who has made no mistakes and regrets nothing is a tall order, and few writers (at least those that are not perpetual amateurs) would dare try.  The problem is that most force the pendulum too far in the opposite direction.  Allegorically (though somewhat to the point of cliché) the past can indeed be considered a heavy load borne on the character’s back.  However, that burden should be in an appropriate weight class – if a perfectly healthy adult is going to moan about dragging a five-pound barbell around then they’re going to lose our interest and attention pretty darn fast.  More appealing are those who carry their pasts privately instead of on their sleeves.  They have a history but they don’t dwell on it; they don’t broadcast it to any and all within range and grab at every precious fragment of pity.  If one is to look for a singular example of this, eyes should wander no further than Batman.  Bruce Wayne is changed profoundly by the death of his parents and his inability to exact vengeance for their murder.  It’s what drives him to don the cape and cowl and roam the night skies beating the crap out of criminals for the rest of his days, on an ultimately futile quest to make the pain go away.  Note that what’s important about this is that he does something.  He doesn’t let his grief cripple him into inaction, into endless sessions of whining to Alfred about how the world is so hard and he just can’t catch a break.  Instead, he becomes the goddamn Batman.  Would Batman be believable, or even interesting, if he was just some silver-spoon-fed playboy billionaire with loving, very much alive parents, who decided to fight crime for something to do on Tuesday evenings?  Hardly.  The haunted past is an integral part of his character.  What it is not, though, is the entirety of his existence going forward.  This, I think, is where some may err, both in creating characters and living their actual lives.

I’ve argued before that characters haunted by a past that is never explained are the most compelling of all.  William Goldman makes this point in his book Which Lie Did I Tell? and points to a famous exchange from Casablanca whereby you learn the entirety of Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart)’s backstory, or at least all you’re going to get out of him:

CAPTAIN RENAULT

What in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?

RICK

My health.  I came to Casablanca for the waters.

CAPTAIN RENAULT

The waters?  What waters?  We’re in the desert.

RICK

I was misinformed.

This works so much better than had Rick launched into a meandering history lesson about his impoverished childhood working in a Brooklyn sweatshop making mattress springs for a nickel a day, followed by his hard-luck teenage years picking fights over candy bars, the tragic loss of his first love in an unfortunate streetcar accident and his subsequent quest to find himself at the bottom of whisky bottles in speakeasies across Chicago.  Dear gods, I’m bored just writing this imagined synopsis of his life; how tedious a man would Rick Blaine be, and how swiftly forgotten by movie audiences, if he decided to spill something similar to Captain Renault?  By being evasive about his past, Rick keeps us interested.  His inscrutability makes his choices that much more difficult to guess, that much more compelling to watch.  Until the very end we don’t know that he isn’t going to take the letters of transit for himself and Ilsa and leave Victor Laslo behind as a prize for the Nazis.  It hasn’t been telegraphed for us by dwelling to the point of exhaustion on What Makes Rick Miserable.

The lesson for today, then, is to keep a lid on the angst.  The haunted past should not be a cement block in which the character is forever anchored, flailing his or her arms to get people to pay attention (and perhaps bring a sledge hammer to shatter it).  It should inform their choices but not overwhelm them in a cesspool of woe-is-me.  As Goldman says, play it as it lays.  It’s noteworthy that in almost all good time travel fiction, the character who has a chance to change an old mistake comes to realize that mistake is a crucial part of their life and that things are ultimately better the way they always were.  Indeed, we are never truly through with the past, it’s who we are.  However, we, and the characters we write, can choose how we wear it.  We can wallow, and keep pointing out our scars to passersby in the vain hope the lines will somehow fade away, but they won’t.  Instead, as we go forward, those scars can be our roadmap.  And with a good map at our side there’s no reason to keep it in first gear.

Rise of The Dark Knight

The Christopher Nolan Batman trifecta.

After groaning through a prehistoric glacier’s worth of ice puns in 1997’s Batman & Robin, I was done with the Caped Crusader.  This was back in an era when I could usually find something positive to say about any movie I went to see, and my comment upon completing a slow funereal march out of the theater along with dozens of other disappointed audience members was, “That was $100 million that could have gone to feed starving children.”  Batman & Robin was a two-hour sensory middle finger, stitched together to become less than the sum of its parts like some ungodly Frankenstein’s monster by accountants and focus groups.  The old Adam West-Burt Ward TV show had been an after school ritual for me for many years, but the kitsch that worked so well in 22-minute installments in the late 60’s was excruciating when blown up for the multiplexes.  What was fun and oddly sincere in one medium became insulting in another.

Since ’97, the theaters had been flooded with one superhero movie after another, some decent but most not, as studios plumbed their back catalogue to find some obscure character in a mask whom they could dress a star as and plug into basically the same script with a hip-hop soundtrack and thus secure a pre-sold blockbuster.  Drubbed to death just as thoroughly around the same time was the concept of the prequel.  “We’re going back to show you how it all happened.”  It wasn’t enough to let a character exist with some mystery about their backstory; now it all had to be spelled out with each personality quirk given a deep, long-simmering Freudian rationale.  (We can all admit that we thought Darth Vader was much cooler before we heard his boyhood self squeal “Yippee!” in The Phantom Menace.)  So when I heard there was a new Batman movie coming out and that it was a prequel, my excitement level was roughly akin to what it would be if someone told me today’s special in our work cafeteria was a bowl of hot concrete.

The trailers for Batman Begins didn’t spur much enthusiasm either.  Liam Neeson doing his Jedi mentor routine again.  Bruce Wayne angst-ridden about his parents, even though we’d seen him coping with that in movies one through four.  The only thing that seemed promising was the casting – heavyweights like Neeson, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman, each of whom has the freedom to pick and choose and certainly wasn’t going to sign on for the same old same old.  After Jack Nicholson stole the first Batman, successive films had tried to compete by doubling the number villains and cramming whatever A-lister was available into the roles, regardless of whether or not the story was served by it.  Screenwriter William Goldman, when discussing working with Batman Forever‘s cowl-wearer Val Kilmer, commented on this pattern by observing that “Batman is and always has been a horrible part,” and that it existed solely for the more over-the-top villain roles to play off.  The casting of Christian Bale in the lead this time, not an unknown but not exactly a seat-packing screen presence either, seemed to suggest that there were slim pickings in the ranks of volunteers to succeed Kilmer, George Clooney and Michael Keaton.  The trailer scenes showed a very low-key approach to the storytelling as well, almost pleading “um, excuse me, if you don’t mind, that is, if you’re not busy, we kind of have a sort of new Batman movie for you.”  The director, Christopher Nolan, had made the fascinating low-budget Memento, and the plodding higher-budget Insomnia.  Truthfully, it all added up to a spectacular non-event.

Imagine one’s surprise when Batman Begins turned out to be merely spectacular.

The reasons why?  Well, Christopher Nolan made one crucial decision in crafting his film.  Aside from the usual reasons offered – treating the material seriously, dialing down the camp – he defied both expectation and tradition and deliberately made Batman/Bruce Wayne the most interesting character in the movie.  Admittedly borrowing a lesson from the casting of the first Superman, where Oscar-winners and other screen legends surrounded the unknown-at-the-time Christopher Reeve, Nolan uses his stars to reflect their light onto the lead.  The movie remains Batman’s story through and through; while there are villains, they are not given equal billing, nor is any significant screen time wasted on the complexity of their origins (the burden of all the Spider-Man movies).  Like the best villains, they exist mainly as challenges for the hero to overcome – impediments to his growth as a human being.  Even in The Dark Knight, the Joker comes out of nowhere and simply is, like a force of nature – he lies repeatedly about how he got his signature scars, in effect taking the piss out of the tired “villain’s motivation” trope.  And there is a mystery to be solved; an actual plot to unravel piece by piece, instead of the bad guys running around trying to kill Batman for two hours.  It keeps moving forward in so compelling a fashion that you forget you’re actually watching a character study, that happens to have some cool fight scenes in it.

In addition, Nolan created a complexity to Bruce Wayne heretofore unexplored on screen.  He has three personas:  Batman; the private, troubled Bruce Wayne; and the flamboyant, spoiled rich 1%-er Bruce Wayne – a new dimension to the man, unseen in his Keaton/Kilmer/Clooney iterations, where Wayne seemed to be just a decent guy who happened to be extraordinarily rich.  Bale’s public Bruce is a trust fund brat, careless with his millions, the last guy you would ever expect to want to be Batman, let alone actually do it – which makes it even more logical that he would choose to act this way.  Bale’s work is so good in the part that he’s actually more interesting as Wayne than he is in the Batsuit – which is just as well, because it’s over an hour into the movie before he finally puts it on.  The Dark Knight continues this dichotomy:  Bruce Wayne continues to act like a colossal entitled douchebag, deflecting all suspicion that he could possibly be the noble, driven soul determined to save Gotham City from itself.  In Nolan’s Batman films, the true battles are not “Biff!”  “Zap!”  “KaPow!” but the ones going on inside these incredibly damaged people who are essentially representatives of the conflicts and contradictions inherent in all human beings.  Batman isn’t just a token good guy – he’s us.  He’s what we like to think we’d do, given the means, but more importantly, the will.  And like us, he is a man who must overcome significant flaws and weaknesses to push himself beyond that limit.

The forthcoming conclusion to Nolan’s trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, takes place nine years after Batman went on the lam, blamed for the murders of Harvey Dent and several police officers.  It isn’t much of a spoiler to suggest that Bruce Wayne’s challenge in this movie may be to question whether he can truly leave the mantle of Batman behind, if the path of a hero is ultimately futile in that it has no end, no final triumph, way to know for certain whether the entire journey has been worth it.  With apologies to William Goldman, Batman is no longer a horrible part.  Truthfully, it never was – he just happened to end up in some horrible movies.  Handled properly, he is an ideal vehicle for an exploration into the concepts of heroism, sacrifice and morality – the stuff of what the best stories are made.  So go on and rise, Batman – we’re going to miss you when the last of the credits roll.

It ain’t easy

Aaron Sorkin, making it look easy.

In Adventures in the Screen Trade, his seminal book on screenwriting, William Goldman talks excitedly about meeting one of his literary heroes, Irwin Shaw (The Young Lions and Rich Man, Poor Man among many others).  They spend an afternoon together, the young Goldman soaking up as much of Shaw’s wisdom as he can.  As they are about to part, Goldman flippantly comments to Shaw that writing must have been easy for him.  Shaw is struck dumb and becomes incredibly morose, remarking quietly, “It wasn’t easy.”  Goldman spends the rest of the chapter berating himself for having said that, for trivializing in one ill-informed quip a lifetime of Shaw’s tribulation and heartbreak poured out on paper.  Perhaps the most intimidating part of attempting to write anything is the mere existence of the reams and reams of brilliant work that have gone before, and the resulting feeling that you will never measure up because it’s so difficult for you and those other guys could just knock out genius effortlessly.  Staring at the blank screen and the blinking cursor with the spectre of Jack Kerouac feeding rolls of paper through his typewriter because he just couldn’t stop can diminish your verve quite abruptly.

Indeed, writing is one of those paradoxical vocations that people can claim to love in one breath when they are bashing their heads against the wall trying to figure out the right order of words in the next.  While I am presently finalizing my first novel, it is intended to be the beginning of a trilogy – an accidental trilogy, given that when I began writing it, it was only going to be a single work until I found out about word count limits – and while I know how it is supposed to end, I am not entirely certain how to get there.  The other day I had a flash of inspiration and found myself laying out the plot of book two in my head.  Resolving to get at least a workable outline down as soon as possible, I found myself sitting at my computer, utterly stymied.  The words were just not there.  I got up, walked around, got a drink, looked out the window, pet the cat, changed the music and still nothing came.  In that moment I felt about as in love with writing as I am with right-wing conservatism.  An inability to find the words is the wedge that lets all the demons through the door.  Who are you kidding?  You suck at this.  You’ll never amount to anything.  No one will ever want to read this, let alone spend money for it.  When a writer sinks into that well of self-criticism, no amount of positive feedback will help a whit.  One can imagine Irwin Shaw at his typewriter caught in the same spiral, and thus have no difficulty picturing his deep offense at William Goldman’s casual remark.

One of my writing heroes, Aaron Sorkin, wrote 88 episodes of The West Wing over four years – working on his other series Sports Night concurrently during the first two of those years and still maintaining an unsurpassed level of quality that entrenched a collective ideal of a liberal and intellectual Presidency of the United States during the frustrating Bush years.  A recent Vanity Fair article discusses how The West Wing continues to inspire young staffers who work in the White House to this very day.  Yet while he was writing, Sorkin’s marriage broke apart and he suffered well-documented problems with substance abuse, even an embarrassing airport arrest.  I would love to meet Aaron Sorkin one day, shake his hand and thank him for inspiring my own writing.  But not in a million years would I ever dare to suggest it was easy for him.  That would diminish not only his work, but my own – I think I’d be embarrassed to say I was inspired by something that the guy knocked off in five minutes on a cocktail napkin.

Writing is the articulation of the soul, the translation of wordless thoughts and feelings into a permanent form that can be shared with and experienced by others.  It is announcing with a megaphone the baring of your vulnerable heart to the world, and hoping for connection, and though it can be as difficult as physically tearing open your ribcage with only your fingertips, we are compelled to do it anyway.  The drive of a writer to craft his message can leave ruin in its wake – the ruin of relationships, of health, of entire lives – the fate of men like Ernest Hemingway.  At the same time, one has to concede nobility in the idea of this sacrifice of personal well-being to a higher purpose – the creation of a lasting story.  This is not by any means to suggest that all great work should require ear-slicing insanity, only that no one should ever expect to reach this mythical idea of effortless writing, and it’s something to remember the next time the flashing cursor unveils the horrifying sight of the blank page.  It’s hard for everyone, no matter how easy they make it look.