Be Gone Girl

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Gone Girl, the hit classy movie du jour this month – was silly, overwrought, overdone and, in the end, laughable. That is – for me. Actually, let’s not sugarcoat it. Even in the film noir world it seeks to evoke and despite being under the hand of David Fincher, one of the best American directors working today, it presents two people so utterly “written” – and therefore so totally preposterous – that it’s difficult to take anything they do for an almost endless two and a half hours seriously. This includes their relationship, their marriage, their lies, their truths and certainly their acting. Oh, and also, not any murders they may or may not have been involved in. That’s right, you will find no spoilers here – that is with the exception of the movie itself.

No, I DID NOT READ THE BOOK! And stop asking me!!! I know you loved it and you think I would too, especially if I had picked the book up before the movie. (Note: Which yeah, I know, would have had the added benefit of me ALSO having liked the movie a lot more– at least you think that’s the case). (Note #2 – But it isn’t!). And finally, yes, of course I know this is a matter of opinion and I’m clearly in the minority. Do not feel the need to refer me to Rotten Tomatoes, where the film has received a 91% positive rating by audiences and an 89% thumbs up from movie critics across the country. A best picture Oscar didn’t get me to change my mind about the annoyingly retro sensibility of Forest Gump, the dulling Driving Miss Daisy or, dare I say it, the blood curdling, off tune caterwauling of Catherine Zeta-Jones in Chicago. In fact, I still have to plug up my ears every time I hear one of my favorite show tunes, All That Jazz, anywhere to this day for fear it will somehow be her voice wafting into the room to haunt me once again as she begins to mangle each and every one of those lovely notes. (Note: Right, yes, I realize she won the Oscar for that one, too. Blah, blah, blah).

Dear Catherine...

Dear Catherine…

You might say, in these situations, I have chosen not to adapt and get with the program. Or perhaps – I was unable to. We all do this in some ways and in various situations thought not necessarily out of stubbornness. Sometimes it’s about mere conviction – a state of mind that is truly anything but “mere.” Though occasionally it is also about::

  1. stubbornness,
  2. an inability to change (not to be confused with stubbornness), or
  3. a process of reasoning that presupposes one knows best in pretty much most situations and that the rest of the world is full of your excrement of choice.

It’s unclear why certain situations cause a particular individual to be inadaptable and therefor unable or adamantly against modifying an option and/or action in a given situation. For example, I was truly surprised by the reaction of my students to Gone Girl (why do I keep confusing it with Affleck’s directorial debut – Gone Baby Gone – an infinitely better and, to my mind, terrific film in a similar though not totally analogous genre?) – that’s how sure I was in my analysis. But as it turns out, they loved it. Well, most of them. They found it to be engrossing, superbly acted and right on in its portrayal of a marriage gone bad. Painful as the latter is, I suppose it does give me yet another reason to keep my 27 year old perfectly happy non-married relationship intact despite all the outside pressure to make it legal now that we can. So at least there is that.

Still, what particularly intrigued me about their clearly misguided reaction to the film weren’t their actual opinions but their willingness to agree with me on all the points I raised about it and yet — not change their minds! Was I losing my touch? Or generationally, are they just not as stubborn and/or intractable as we were on every issue in the universe?

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Well, I prefer to think it’s generational since I certainly would never pressure, out-argue or outwardly shame anyone into agreeing with me on any one point. At least, not consciously – well, okay, gleefully. Instead, they seem to me a more adaptable group and/or generation, which in the end might be a more admirable quality for the times they have been born into.

We baby boomers – though I’m on the tail end of it – expected so much and were not satisfied with NOT getting it. So we chose to innovate or push the envelope in other ways to get what we wanted. Or stamp our feet and whine when that didn’t work.

toon369I don’t think this generation wants any less but it feels like they’ve come to expect less. It’s not that they won’t work hard it’s that they haven’t decided they’re entitled and have to have something. They have adapted themselves to expect less – be it from movies, the economy or the government – because less has been given. I’m not sure if they have the right idea but it might not necessarily be the wrong one if they keep working just has voraciously for what they desire. In the end, it might just only be yet another way to look at the world – a canny strategy given the state of things that we have left for them.

This principle is illustrated tenfold in Adaptation – a 2002 film dreamed up by one of the few truly original voices left in the screenwriting trade – Charlie Kaufman. This is a movie I’ve had students watch and read in classes almost since it came out in order to study Mr. Kaufman’s spare writing style and daringness on the page and it’s been almost universally adored by aspiring writers I’ve taught over the last decade. Sadly, this was not the case last week. There was something about the sheer oddness of the work that left this group cold. Not that that they didn’t admire the unmitigated gall of what he did. He got some points for that. They just didn’t believe it made sense under the rules of movies they had grown up watching.

My reaction... or my students'?

My reaction… or my students’?

As the inside story goes, the real Mr. Kaufman wanted to adapt a non-fiction book about flowers called The Orchid Thief, written by famed New Yorker writer Susan Orlean, into a major feature film following the out-of-nowhere success some years earlier of his original, post-modern, hilariously affecting meta-screenplay for Being John Malkovich. Stumped beyond reason and with a deadline looming, the real Mr. Kaufman had the desperate idea to write himself into the film as the main character struggling to adapt an inadaptable book and imagined its author, Ms. Orlean, as an unattainable, ice princess intellectual snob from the Big Apple who falls in love with the subject of her novel and becomes, well – lets just say you have to see the film in order to know that. In any event, the desperate fictional version of Mr. Kaufman, helped along by his doppelganger screenwriter brother Donald –a twin who only aspires to write big commercial movies – finally takes some action to discover the truth behind not only The Orchid Thief but the seemingly unattainable Ms. Orlean -and in the end discovers both the unsavory but thrilling truth about her life as well as his own.

The agony and the ecstasy of Adaptation

The agony and the ecstasy of Adaptation

The genius of the real Mr. Kaufman’s efforts here is that in his story adaptation (and thus the movie, Adaptation) became not compromise but innovation. It was only after hitting his head countless times against the proverbial writer wall that he found the most bizarre solution imaginable, taking a ridiculous stab at doing something outlandish that had just the slightest chance of emerging as – great. Forget about how one feels about the film itself – imagine yourself being paid a hefty amount of money by Columbia Pictures to adapt a book about flowers and handing in a screenplay where you are the main character and your subject takes a back seat to your neurosis in wrestling said subject? Not to mention co-authoring your WGA registered script with another person – your brother – who is also fictionalized in the film and, as it turns out, does not exist in real life. The best part of all this for me was when Mr. Kaufman’s screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award and at the Oscar competition ceremony, the fake name of Donald Kaufman, along with the real Charlie Kaufman, was read by actress Marcia Gay Harden from the stage of the Kodak Theatre to millions of viewers worldwide. Now that’s adaptation on all levels – and in the best, most insurgent way.

This is not the case with Gone, Girl – a not particularly innovative film that by most accounts is a very faithful adaptation of a best-selling novel that purports to tell the tale of modern day marriage by employing the filmic conventions of suspense and neo-noir while ultimately cloaking it all in a sort of 2014 media world of 24/7 meta reality. For those looking for a take on the latter, I would suggest a film done almost 20 years prior – Gus Van Sant’s To Die For (1995) – which has its flaws but at the very least took a fresh and much more unusual approach to the subject. Or better yet, a brilliantly funny cable movie, The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom, starring Holly Hunter in an unforgettable, Emmy Award-winning performance. Yes, it’s a matter of taste. I know that. But to not call it as you see it when the whole world seems to be proclaiming it an entirely different way, would be to betray everything I believe in. After all, if nothing else I am still a baby boomer. On the tail end, that is.

Yes... I agree... something IS missing

Yes… I agree… something IS missing

For the record, one’s view of any movie or work of art is certainly nothing more or less than a matter of opinion. Clearly, there is no real right or wrong. But when one aspires to merely adapt rather than innovate – or more dangerously sees them as the same thing – we run the risk of losing the rarity of something truly fantastic. Standing on my crumbling soapbox of flower power I proclaim to the world that Gone Girl is not even close to being the latter. And note – this is nothing personal to the filmmakers.   I’m sure one-on-one I would likely enjoy the company of the entire cast and crew, even if they would each prefer to take me to the woodshed – or simply tune me out. But I’m used to that. After all, I have been in a relationship for 27 years where the latter simply becomes an occasional fact of life – on both sides. And unlike what’s presented in Gone Girl it doesn’t mean marital destruction – it actually ensures relationship survival.

If you’re single or perhaps simply despise marriage metaphors, let me put it another way with a brief excerpt from one of the wisest films that I know – The Rocky Horror Picture Show. A heated exchange between transvestite/resident mad scientist, Dr. Frank –N –Furter and his surly, crazy-haired maid, Magenta, finally and inevitably concludes this way:

Magenta: I ask for nothing, Master.

Frank: And you shall receive it…..IN ABUNDANCE!!

Interestingly enough, those lines came from an adapted screenplay.

Pass/Fail

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Life is a continuous process of give and take.  Take and give.  A process in which you make mistakes, lots of them, in addition to the many things that you get right.  In fact, one of the ways you can measure if you’re living a life really worth living – meaning doing it well  – is by the amount of mistakes you make.  Chances are if the total number that month or year is zero, you are doing the very thing you have been trying so hard not to do – failing.  Perhaps I’ve been teaching college students too long and that’s the reason I think in terms of pass/fail.  But I don’t think so.

Human beings are not computer programs whose excellence can be programmed.  We are a species who do the lion’s share of our learning the good old fashioned way – through practice and trial and error.   I don’t know about you but when I practice anything – my writing, my cooking, my teaching or my making non-neurotic choices even though the neurotic, crazy choice is far more appealing – I screw up.  I find the more I practice the less I screw up, which if anything is a reason for us all to incessantly practice at anything we care about.   We don’t usually because we are either tired or know that if things are going so well we don’t want to rock the boat since it’s only a matter of time before we – that’s right, you guessed it – screw up.

Sometimes things just don't come out exactly as you had hoped....

Sometimes things just don’t come out exactly as you had hoped….

A lot of times we plateau in what we do well and in an effort not to make a mistake we don’t force ourselves to do enough new stuff.   This, too, is a mistake because nothing stays the same ever – even if you stop and decide it’s going to.  At some point something will change in the equation so why not be the one to take the initiative and shake it up a bit to keep things interesting or perhaps even improve?  It’s because we have this idea that if we hold on to the same tried and true method of doing some task or interest or job the result will always be the same.  Hmmm, it might for a while – as long as we can do it – which won’t be forever.  But it will also ensure we get a bit lazy, or complacent or fail (there’s that word again) to open a door we might have enjoyed going down or benefited from immensely just because we didn’t want to…. Well, you know.

Though, I'm not sure I will ever crave a Vegan Burger

Though, I’m not sure I will ever crave a Vegan Burger

I find this complacency/fear in me sometimes when I teach the same classes, do my gym routine (when I go), or cook the same six meals for dinner several times a month (the rest of the time I eat out or order in).  For example, let’s take teaching – where I keep requiring students to watch the same five movies every semester to illustrate various screenwriting principles.  In the latter, it’s not that these examples don’t work – in fact they do work quite well.  Juno, Adaptation, Harold and Maude, Chinatown, North by Northwest – they’re all excellent films that young people can learn a lot from and, more importantly, I never get tired of teaching or talking about with them.   It’s that, well – I am already quite certain how well how well they work.  Perhaps there is something that could work even better (and make me better)?  Of course, there is.  There is always something that can work better.  But you have to search for it.  That’s why I also have students every other week go out to a newly released movie (at a movie theatre) that we can analyze – so as new screenwriters they can be exposed to all types of films – even if it’s in a genre they or I don’t like.

This week for instance, I insisted on Identity Thief – not because I was dying to see it but because I knew it had a quintessential Hollywood formula you could summarize in a one sheet (industry parlance for, uh, poster) and it is important to see at least one of those a semester if one plans to work in the real world movie business and know how either a. you make one of those or b. what you’re up against.

Definitely the sucker for paying full price...

Definitely the sucker for paying full price admission to this…

So what if it’s #1 at the box-office and as god-awful a movie as you can almost imagine  (well, certainly according to Salon).  And who cares if I will never get back those two hours and my artsy colleagues condemn me for it.  (Note: I actually enjoy the fact of the latter.  Remind me sometime to tell you the full story of how my very positive review of 9 to 5 in the eighties caused one of my fellow Variety film critics to fling his reporter’s notebooks halfway across the newsroom in unmitigated rage).  But at least in the case of Identity Thief it was an attempt on my part (if not the filmmakers’) to do something different.

Okay — I will admit that given the sheer nonsensically incoherent script choices made in Identity Thief I might have made the wrong choice here.  Okay, let me be more blunt – I might have (might have?!) screwed up.  This choice didn’t work at all as a film so perhaps it might have been better to have students watch a much more blatantly commercial film of that type that I knew did work brilliantly (e.g. Forty Year Old Virgin).  There’s only one problem — this is not the 2005 Virgin world of Hollywood.  It’s a different 2013 world a student needs to make their identity in.  So part of their education should be in knowing what to do and not to do.  To which this film illustrates the ultimate challenge.  Universally panned by the critics, probably the future winner of any number of Razzies and yet….it is the #1 film at the box-office this weekend with $36,500,000 taken in domestically in 3 days.  Screw up/Failure or Cleverness/Success?  Ponder that for a while and then consider your final answer to the question, rather than the film itself (which I don’t want anyone to run out and see), as your teachable moment.

Or listen to the philosophy of Homer

Or listen to the philosophy of Homer

Mistakes came up a bunch of times at a recent WGA panel of Oscar and guild nominated screenwriters I took my students to attend.  It always does when writers talk among themselves – as well as other similar themes such as failing, honesty, creativity and discipline.  I suspect this is the case when you gather a group of any creative types – actors, directors, designers or visual artists.  Or maybe even plumbers or insurance salesman or accountants.  Who is to say that there are not these fears (or creativity) among them?  The medical plan that should never have been recommended; the copper pipe system that was not needed or too good to be true; the balance sheet that someone concocted to save their own asses instead of their clients.  Obviously – there is a theme here.

But I can’t speak to those nor would you probably want to read about them since we all know that for some reason, show business is EVERYONE’S second, if not first business.  What I can speak to is a few moments at the panel this week:

  1. Writer’s Guild president Chris Keyser noting that like many professions, writing is a solitary one but that “we write alone – together.”  That we are listening to nominated screenwriters on a panel who no doubt at one time listened to or read about Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine) and Callie Khouri (Thelma and Louise), who in turn also learned from Robert Towne (Chinatown) or Alvin Sargent (Ordinary People), who each probably heard or watched work by Paddy Chayefsky (Network) and Joseph Mankeiwicz (All About Eve), who took advice from  Carl Foreman (High Noon) and Daniel Taradash (From Here to Eternity).  Look up any of these esteemed writers and you’ll also find they all share something else — ALL have written at least one really bad movie, not to mention some of the other scripts you don’t know about.  In other words, all have screwed up – big time.
  2. Screenwriters Mark Boal (Zero Dark Thirty) and John Gatins (Flight) correcting moderator-screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk) on his assumption that all writers search for absolute truth in their films.  Both agreed that absolute truth does not truly exist and even if it did, would be deadly dull if played out in real time.  Instead, what both require of themselves is honesty and authenticity amid many days, months and years of frustrating roadblocks and missteps along the way.
  3. Stephen Chbosky, novelist and screenwriter/director of Perks of Being A Wallflower, who freely admitted to a 200 page first draft screenplay, much of which had to be junked because of all of the unnecessary subplots he had included – a method of working he recommended to nobody else but one that he sheepishly admitted finally did work for him.
  4.  Roman Coppola, who co-wrote Moonrise Kingdom with director Wes Anderson, speaking to an audience question about the best piece of writing advice he had ever gotten. I f you closed your eyes and just listened, Mr. Coppola sounded exactly like the vocal incarnation of his father, master writer-director Francis Coppola, so it was particularly jarring to hear him pass on these words of wisdom from Coppola, Sr. (a symbolic writing father to many) which RC said were ones from centuries ago taken from novelist Alexander Dumas: “First act – clear.  Third Act – short.  Interest – everywhere.”

So inspired was I by these words that I went home and looked it up to find out more.  But instead what I found was that Roman, or perhaps his father, was mistaken and these words were apparently the advice of not Dumas but another esteemed, centuries old novelist – Honore de Balzac.

But who really cares (except maybe Balzac and he’s dead)?  Because despite the mistake of whomever – Francis or Roman or perhaps me in telling the story – the message was no less truthful or worthy.  This is important to remember not only in the subject of writing but also in an attempt to say or do anything meaningful.  Mistakes will be made but it’s what is really being said that counts – whether it’s from a director’s chair on a stage in Beverly Hills, in your house or apartment in a private conversation, or, most importantly, even only in your own mind – to yourself.